FOXBOROUGH — Rob Gronkowski didn’t miss a game after getting injured in last season’s AFC Championship win over Baltimore. He played in Super Bowl XLVI, and was back on the field six months later for the Patriots’ preseason opener against New Orleans.
In between, he had surgery for the ankle injury, rehabbed vigorously, posed naked for a magazine cover, and signed a six-year contract extension that could be worth $55 million.
He had a long way to go to get back on the field after getting hurt, but he seems happy with his progress.
“Every day you’re going out there and you want to improve,” Gronkowski said after Thursday’s full-pads practice. “From the beginning of the camp to this day, I feel like I’ve improved a lot from where I started.
“It’s just great going out, competing against everyone. Going out there every single day, you get the speed of the game down more, you get the chemistry down with the quarterbacks more.”
Gronkowski caught two passes in last week’s preseason opener, and doesn’t appear slowed by the ankle injury. The more time he can spend on the field, the better the offense will be.
“You definitely never want to miss any practices, and obviously there’s a setback when you miss a couple,” Gronkowski said. “That’s the No. 1 thing, to always get out there and practice and get your conditioning right, have chemistry with the offense.”
End of the line
Rob Ninkovich is still listed by the team as a linebacker, but he has spent more time lining up as a defensive end in camp. What’s in a name, then? Does it even matter what label gets applied to the seven-year pro out of Purdue?
“Rob’s always played at the end of the line of scrimmage, so that’s where he still plays,” said coach Bill Belichick. “I see him as an end-of-the-line player — that’s the way I would classify him. You can call him whatever you want, it doesn’t matter to me.”
It doesn’t matter to Ninkovich, either.
“Coming into camp, I knew that obviously there were going to be some changes — there’s always change in training camp — so I was able to go to a position I’ve played before, which is defensive end,” Ninkovich said. “It’s a little more of go-get-the-quarterback, go-get-the-ball mentality, so it’s fun for me.”
As a defensive end, Ninkovich might draw bigger, stronger offensive linemen to go against. But he has faced them in the past and is comfortable with his success rate.
“I’ve always been pretty strong,’’ he said. “I think that tight ends, I’ve been able to handle them pretty well, tackles, both of them at the same time. I should be all right.
“I’ve been doing it for a long time and it’s just something that you work on. You get your techniques right, you get your hand placement right. Especially in that position, it’s more about technique and leverage than it is brute strength.”
Only five teams averaged fewer than the Patriots’ 21.6 yards per kickoff return last year, an important special teams statistic that Belichick says was not acceptable. But he hasn’t seen much improvement so far.
“We didn’t return them well in any conditions at any time, and still haven’t, based on the New Orleans game,” Belichick said. “That’s obviously an area that we can improve on, that we have worked hard in, but based on the results, still need to do a lot more work on.”
Salem native and current NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy — a big Patriots fan who grew up in York, Maine — sat in on Belichick’s press conference. Belichick was asked near the end if he’d ever consider living for six months on the International Space Station. “I don’t like heights,” he said. The coach posed for pictures with Cassidy, who was wearing his blue NASA uniform . . . Julian Edelman and Niko Koutouvides were kicked out of practice by Belichick after an on-field pushing-and-shoving altercation following a punt return . . . Receiver Jabar Gaffney, who injured his right quad during Wednesday’s practice, was watching Thursday’s practice in street clothes. When asked before practice for an update on Gaffney’s status, Belichick said, “Day-to-day. We’ll see how it goes today. I don’t think this is life-threatening.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.