Hello there. This is a post in which we’ll bravely explore the dark and deepest depths of depth charts, looking for sleepers who are sometimes absurdly deep that you should watch out for either as a late-round flier, or an early season waiver wire add. I’ll also be wrong often in this post, so you can enjoy that too.
There will be some footballs thrown to unfamiliar hands this season in New England. Thus is the nature of Tom Brady’s existence, as he could begin the season without his top five receivers from last year if Rob Gronkowski lands on the PUP list. Combined Gronk, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Danny Woodhead caught 338 passes last year. Toss in the departures of depth receivers like Visanthe Shiancoe, Donte Stallworth, and Deion Branch, and the changeover among the Patriots’ pass catchers is downright stunning.
But not nearly as stunning as the sudden rise of Jake Ballard, and the assumption that he’ll just slide right in and be just fine thanks while replacing Hernandez. Ballard is several things, and none of them help him to resemble a player who’s even close to the caliber of tight end Brady was throwing to with his Gronkowski/Hernandez tandem.
He’s fragile, with his knee still assembled using band-aids and spit. He only reached 100 percent status a few weeks ago after microfracture and reconstruction surgery on his knee in February of 2012, and even during OTAs he still “appeared rigid“.
And most importantly, he lacks speed, and any sort of downfield presence. He ran a 4.99 in the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine during his draft year, which means wiener dogs would lap him several times. He’s always been more of a classic, space eating large target tight end, the kind of breed that’s gradually fading.
You know who doesn’t fit that description? Zach Sudfeld.
Yes, in the infancy of this Deep Sleeping series(?), this is the most clawing reach. I don’t believe in Ballard, especially as a Hernandez replacement. That’s a job for Julien Edelman, or more likely, Shane Vereen (sweet money there). But since we still can’t say anything definitive about Gronkowski’s Week 1 status and we won’t be able to until, oh, September, there’s a wide-open opportunity for someone who isn’t broken to rise. And do we really, honestly believe in Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui, who have combined for all of 35 catches over the past two years?
Both Fells and Hoomanawanui have been fine depth options throughout their careers, and they’ve been capable in secondary roles. For Fells, his career high in receiving yardage came in 2010 with the Rams, when he finished with 391 yards. Hoomanawanui’s peak is only 146 yards on 13 receptions, also with the Rams in 2010. Those aren’t the numbers of veterans far above replacement level, or veterans reliable and experienced enough that they can’t be leap-frogged by an undrafted rookie.
That’s what Sudfeld is, largely because he saw limited time because of injuries at Nevada until just this past season. So the sample size he’s provided us with is small, but still impressive. He caught 45 passes during his senior season for 598 yards and eight touchdowns (an average of 46 yards per game). He also displayed a fleeting flash of Hernandez-esque ability with a rushing touchdown.
He’s already something Ballard is not: slow, and he also has plenty of size and overall girth (6’7″, 260 pounds). At the Combine this past spring he recorded a 40-yard dash time of 4.71. To compare, Gronk ran a 4.65 back in 2010. He’ll be on the roster bubble as August comes to a close, which feels like a redundant statement because being bubbled is an inherent position with any undrafted rookie. But with that speed, he can play in the slot and maybe even be split out wide, just like Hernandez (Hernandez played 59 percent of his snaps at wide receiver in 2012, and ran a 4.65 during his draft year).
Consider Sudfeld your early entry for the tight end version of the Alfred Morris designation. A year ago at this time Morris was stuck in a Redskins backfield quagmire alongside Roy Helu and Evan Royster, which Tim Hightower set to return from an injury. Commonly, Morris fell entirely off the board, and likely went undrafted in many leagues with his ADP of 144.8. Then the sixth-round pick rushed for 1,613 yards, the second-best total in the league behind only Adrian Peterson.
The rise of a promising prodigy is usually accelerated by extreme circumstances, and the Patriots’ offseason can hardly be described as “ordinary”. Or “enjoyable”.