FOXBOROUGH — Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski always says he is taking things day-to-day, but not all days are created equal, and today was an important checkpoint in Gronkowski's rehab from a torn ACL.
For the first time this summer, Gronkowski participated in 11-on-11 drills with the rest of his team. Up to this point, Gronkowski's work had been limited primarily to 1-on-1 work with Tom Brady and Darrelle Revis, and a few repetitions in 7-on-7 work last week with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"Definitely," Gronkowski said about today being another step forward. "Always a step forward when you're participating more and more. Probably tomorrow, I'll pick it up and do more, so it's going well so far. No setbacks or anything. Just having a blast, competing out there, having some fun catching some balls and making some plays."
Gronkowski still hasn't participating as a blocker in team drills — he says that would be another step forward for him — but he has been getting up to speed as a receiver, and his participation in team drills suggests he is on a good trajectory in that regard.
The chemistry between Gronkowski and Brady picked up right where it left off; the All-Pro tight end caught two passes off Brady immediately upon entering team drills. Gronkowski could be the Patriots' top option in the passing game if fully healthy, so his chemistry with Brady is incredibly important, but he will also need to be in lockstep with the other pass-catchers on the field.
"It's definitely huge to get going, be on the same page with the quarterback," he said, "but not just the quarterback. You want to be on the same page with the wide receivers, be on different levels on the routes, just all on the same page on offense as a whole. I've been working with Tom since I've been out here, but we haven't been doing it versus a defense or anything, so it feels good to be right out there, and boom, just like it'd never missed before."
Gronkowski has targeted a goal of playing all 16 games this season, and at his current rate of improvement and increased involvement in the offense, there's no reason to believe he won't be ready to go for the season opener against the Miami Dolphins.
Here are some more notes from the Patriots' final open portion of training camp:
— Attendance: RB Tyler Gaffney (meniscus), TE D.J. Williams (unknown), LB Cameron Gordon (unknown), OL Chris Martin (unknown), OT Sebastian Vollmer (unknown), DT Tommy Kelly (unknown), DL Chris Jones (unknown), and DL Sealver Siliga (hand) were not spotted at practice.
— Drops: RB Shane Vereen, TE Steve Maneri, WR Brian Tyms, FB Taylor McCuller
— Passing stats, team drills: QB Tom Brady went 9-for-11 in 7-on-7s and 12-for-17 with an interception in 11-on-11s; QB Ryan Mallett went 7-for-8 in 7-on-7s and 5-for-8 with an interception in 11-on-11s; QB Jimmy Garoppolo went 4-for-5 in 7-on-7s and 5-for-8 in 11-on-11s.
— Interceptions: CB Brandon Browner (via Mallett), LB James Anderson (via Brady)
— Laps: RB James White (fumble)
— The attendance report got some major shake-ups today, with S Tavon Wilson, DT Ben Bass, C Bryan Stork, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, LB Jerod Mayo, WR Jeremy Gallon, and DT Jerel Worthy all making their return to practice.
— Stork, Hoomanawanui, Anderson, and OL Chris Martin all went down to the lower practice field to do conditioning work after the initial stretching period at the beginning of practice.
— We were unable to record the 1-on-1 pass-rush portion of practice, but noticed a few players that stood out: DTs Jerel Worthy and Dominique Easley each won all three of their matchups convincingly.
— It was a big day for DT Dominique Easley, as the Patriots' first-round pick participated in 11-on-11 drills for the first time this summer. He moved around the line in team drills, lining up at defensive tackle and at defensive end in different formations. He had mixed results in that setting, but he was far more impressive in 1-on-1 pass-rush drills and won three straight matchups. He beat C Ryan Wendell with an inside move following a nice burst off the line, and beat OL Dan Connolly in the same fashion with an outside move. Easley also showed off some suddenness with a spin move that beat right guard Jon Halapio.
— WR Aaron Dobson also participated in 7-on-7 drills and caught a pair of passes from Mallett in those drills. He also participated briefly in 11-on-11 drills. Dobson appears to be getting up to speed running his routes, and does not seem to be favoring his surgically repaired left foot.
— Hoomanawanui wore a brace on his left knee, a likely indication of what his injury was.
— CB Kyle Arrington has often been criticized for his struggles covering on the outside, but he had a nice leaping pass-breakup early in practice on a pass from Mallett to WR Danny Amendola.
— RBs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen remain the top options in team drills. James White is getting some opportunities, as well, and continued to get a few today. The Patriots appear set to take the committee approach in the backfield.
— Amendola had a nice day of practice, and a solid training camp overall. He caught three passes in team drills and ran a crisp slant route to beat CB Darrelle Revis in 11-on-11 drills.
— WR Josh Boyce continues to see fewer and fewer opportunities. RB Roy Finch remains the top option on kickoff returns, but Jeremy Gallon made an appearance in that role in his debut practice over Boyce, who had previously been the No. 2 option for kickoff return duty. Boyce was also working with the special teams unit whille the first-team offense worked together in a team drill on the adjacent field. At this point, Boyce looks like a long shot for the roster.
— OT Cameron Fleming took a few practice reps at guard in 11-on-11 work. He also lined up at tight end in a "jumbo" formation. The Patriots' fourth-round pick said when he was drafted that he hadn't played guard in any manner other than a few practice reps "as a joke," but this didn't appear to be for fun and games, and the Patriots continue to mix things up on the line to see which combinations will work best, and who will play where.
— Brandon Browner's interception off Ryan Mallett was probably among the easiest interceptions the veteran cornerback has ever made. He simply turned around and found the ball headed straight for his chest. WR Derrick Johnson was the intended target on the route, but Mallett's pass was way off target.
— James Anderson's interception, on the other hand, was a very athletic play to get between a pass from Brady to Amendola. Anderson sprinted across the field, and would have returned the interception for a touchdown in a live situation.
— After practice, Finch was spotted walking off the field with a slight limp, favoring his right leg. He was not wearing a shoe on his right foot, so his practice and game availability will be noteworthy going forward.