New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski returned to practice in full pads yesterday, and while this could very well be just a smoke screen, there is absolutely no way that Gronkowski returning to practice in full pads isn’t good news. While he was only described as going half-gear, Gronkowski was indeed taking reps and continues to progress well from offseason back and arm surgeries. The fact that Gronk returned in full pads confirms that a Week 3 return is in the cards, otherwise the Patriots would not have released Daniel Fells and Jake Ballard a day before the 53-man cutdown. Gronkowski is on the 53-man roster and not the reserve/PUP list, but it’s still anyone’s guess as to when Rob Gronkowski will play his first game in 2013.
ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss believes that the “sweet spot” for Gronkowski’s return is between Weeks 3 and 7, and most people believe that Gronkowski will not be ready to play in the first two games of the regular season. Not only would playing this week against the Buffalo Bills be pushing it, but the Week 2 game against the New York Jets is on Thursday; there’s no way he plays in either one of those games.
But Week 3 has seemingly been the target date, based on reports earlier this month from both ESPN and the Boston Herald. Rob Gronkowski could be able to return by then, but it might be more likely for Gronk to come back in Week 4. The fact that Ballard and Fells were cut might be because the Patriots want to move to more two-RB sets or four-wide sets instead of twin TE packages, than rather heightened confidence in Gronk’s ability to return quickly. Or maybe it really is the latter.
Weeks 3-7 seem to be a realistic range for Rob Gronkowski to return, but I think it ends up being at around Week 4. If Gronkowski’s return date was set for Weeks 6 or 7, then it wouldn’t have made much sense for the Patriots to place him on the 53-man roster anyway. They could have saved a roster spot on Gronk and placed him on the PUP, because the PUP list causes players to miss the first six games. I believe that Gronkowski will be back before the sixth game, but the range Reiss provides is definitely realistic. Because it is possible that Gronkowski suffers a setback, or the Patriots wanted to more closely monitor his progress. On the PUP list, a player cannot play in games or even practice.