The opening of training camp is what Patriots coach Bill Belichick called “an exciting time year” on Wednesday.
More exciting for Patriots fans, however, was the news he delivered in his first remarks of the 2014 season - tight end Rob Gronkowski has been cleared to play.
Doctors have signed off on Gronkowski participating when the Patriots open their first training camp practice on Thursday. He has been sidelined since December when he suffered a torn ACL.
There had been some thought that Gronkowski would be placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list at the start of camp to allow him to slowly work back into shape.
Gronkowski was a limited participant in the Patriots’ spring drills and then said last week that he intended to play a full season for the Patriots this year, something he hasn’t accomplished since 2011, which was his first of two straight All-Pro seasons.
Gronkowski did not speak Wednesday. Belichick didn’t elaborate much on Gronkowski’s status or on how the Patriots plan to keep him healthy.
“I mean the health of the team is the most important thing we have,” Belichick said. “We try to do everything we can to help all the players. We don’t single out these players and those players. We need all of them.”
His teammates were happy to have Gronkowski back.
“It’s a positive,” veteran guard Logan Mankins said. “We were all hoping Gronk would have a good recovery and so far he has. We’ll just see where he is, how good he is right now.
“It’s great to have him out there – he’s a dynamic blocker, he does a great job in the blocking, and he’s a big target for Tom (Brady) to get the ball to and he gets open. Anytime you can have Gronk on the field, it’s great.”
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich spoke about Gronkowski’s personality being as big as his talent.
“I mean, Gronk’s Gronk – he’s ‘yo soy fiesta’, right?,” Ninkovich said, smiling as he made reference to Gronkowski’s famous quip to a Spanish reporter. “I think he’s a tremendous player. Personality-wise, he’s one of the best guys you could ever meet; he’s a great guy off the field, he’ll say hi to anybody, he’ll do anything for you.
“I’m happy to see his progress and see him come into this season staying healthy, obviously that’s what everybody’s talking about. I don’t want to speak on his behalf, but he’s one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever seen as well. All that together makes for one heck of a football player, so I’m excited to see him as well.”
It’s been a long road back for Gronkowski, who missed most of training camp last year and then sat out the first six games following offseason forearm and back surgeries. Gronkowski then suffered his knee injury in December in a win over the Browns, and waited a month to let the swelling subside before having surgery.
Gronkowski has been rehabbing and working out at Gillette Stadium all offseason, and while he may not be full-go at the start of camp, Belichick and the Patriots feel comfortable enough about his progress to let Gronkowski start the season on the active roster.
Belichick said the Patriots would conduct conditioning tests Wednesday, ahead of Thursday’s first of four straight days of workouts, though he noted some players have already passed the tests.
There could be more players added to the PUP list after those evaluations. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, and receivers Aaron Dobson, Jeremy Gallon, and Matthew Slater were already added to the list, while first-round draft pick Dominique Easley, a defensive end from Florida, was added to the non-football injury list, along with running back Roy Finch, tackle Chris Martin, and linebacker Deontae Skinner.
Belichick was asked about the 34 text messages between him and former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez that surfaced last week in court documents related to the ex-player’s murder trial, but the Patriots coach did not want to say anything about them.
“That was addressed by a lawyer last week, and I don’t have any further comment on it,” he said.