FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Go ahead and hit Rob Gronkowski on his right knee. See if he cares.
The tough tight end is anxious to get into a game and take his chances less than eight months after surgery.
"If I'm ready to get out there, I'm ready to get out there," the Patriots' star said Monday after his first contact drills in training camp. "It's just like any other part of the body getting hit now. So once I get rolling like that, it'll just be like another day getting hit."
Playing in New England's third preseason game Friday night against the Carolina Panthers seems unlikely.
Playing in the regular-season opener Sept. 7 against the Miami Dolphins? That's still his goal, although the coaches and training staff will have the final say.
"I just love playing the game of football," Gronkowski said. "So whenever they let me have a chance, I definitely want to play."
The contact was light, but it was encouraging after his last two seasons were filled with injuries.
He missed the first six games last year recovering from forearm and back surgeries. In his seventh game back, the ACL and MCL in his right knee were torn on Dec. 8 on a hit by Cleveland safety TJ Ward, now with Denver.
Gronkowski underwent surgery on Jan. 9, was cleared to participate in non-contact drills when training camp opened and spent time running routes and catching passes from Tom Brady without defenders. He recently started doing that against cornerback Darrelle Revis.
That was a necessary step before getting into team drills.
"It's huge," Gronkowski said. "It's always good to do everything I was doing leading up to it, so when I went out there today I felt like I was prepared."
Monday's drills were just another step in his progression to playing without restrictions.
"It wasn't like full (contact) or anything," Gronkowski said. "It was just little routes and stuff, but (I'm) feeling good, progressed a lot out there doing routes versus the defense."
He did that in 11-on-11 drills for the first time and expects to step up his activities Tuesday.
Now come more repetitions and some blocking as he takes more small steps toward being the major part of the Patriots offense that he was when healthy.
"It's going well so far, no setbacks or anything," Gronkowski said, "just having a blast competing back out there and having fun catching some balls and making some plays."
The Patriots had just one healthy tight end for Friday night's 42-35 preseason win over the Philadelphia Eagles, converted tackle Steve Maneri. And he signed with the team just five days earlier.
Michael Hoomanawanui, the No. 2 tight end, has been out for much of training camp. He had a brace on his left knee on Monday and didn't participate in team drills. Another tight end, D.J. Williams, is out with a left leg injury.
So on Monday the Patriots re-signed tight end Justin Jones, a rookie free agent from East Carolina, just eight days after cutting him and released long snapper Tyler Ott, a rookie free agent from Harvard.
"You obviously want to be out there whenever you can so that's the passion I have and will always have to this game and for this position," Hoomanawanui said. "To watch other guys go out there and take all those reps, you want to be out there and helping this team."
That also drives Gronkowski.
"You want to be out there together helping each other out," he said. "Maneri did a great job for just being here for a couple of days and going in and playing. He did a great job on assignments and he did a great job blocking."
Gronkowski seems much further ahead in his rehabilitation than he was last summer but wouldn't compare the two comebacks.
"We're not allowed to do that. We're not allowed to compare," he said with his usual smile. "That was a good question, though. Better answer."
The best answer for the Patriots would be for him to be productive in the opener. Before camp, Gronkowski said his goal was to play in all 16 regular-season games.
"Yeah," he said. "I'm still operating off the same plan."
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