FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Jake Ballard knows he has a lot more work to do to complete his comeback from two knee operations and play in another NFL game.
The tight end, last seen making a catch for the New York Giants against New England in the Super Bowl almost 18 months ago, tore up his left knee on a hit by now-teammate Brandon Spikes on that play and hasn't played since.
Now, he's on the Patriots where he'll try to fill in for the arrested Aaron Hernandez and the recovering Rob Gronkowski.
"I'm extremely excited to be out here on the practice field," Ballard said Saturday, after the team's second full workout. "It's been so long since I've been able to play. It's just nice being out here being practicing with the guys I've been hanging around with for about a year now.
"I'm extremely excited for the season, but first I have to keep improving in training camp."
The Patriots claimed Ballard, who had microfracture surgery on his knee as well as an ACL repair, after he was waived by the Giants. At the time, picking up a player who wasn't going to play seemed a bit odd. But now Ballard could turn out to be a gem of a signing.
"He was a starting tight end in the National Football League," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Saturday. "I don't think it was a big gamble. Good player at a young age, we played against him, he was a good player and he was available. I don't think it was a big gamble."
Watching Ballard in practice, it's easy to see his step isn't quite right. Asked if he's running as well as he did before he got hurt, Ballard said, "I don't know if I'll ever feel like that, but I definitely feel a lot better than I have, especially better than the OTAs. I feel like I'm running smoother, picking up a little bit more speed.
"The knee feels just a little weird and that's just because half of it is numb from the surgery anyway - all the nerves have been cut. I'm never going to feel like I was but I'm definitely feeling better the more I'm out here."
The 6-for-6 Ballard, playing at 260 pounds, 18 pounds lighter than he was with the Giants, is part of a tight end picture that includes returnees Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells and rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld. And, of course, Gronkowski, even though no one really knows when he'll play after recovering from back surgery that followed four arm operations.
Ballard doesn't have a lock on a spot - but he's beaten the odds before. The Giants signed him out of Ohio State as an undrafted free agent and he went on to catch 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie on a Super Bowl-winning team.
"I just need to get better every day and just work on my route running and pass protection," he said.