Rob Gronkowski may finally make his long-awaited 2013 debut Sunday when his New England Patriots take on the rival New York Jets. Gronkowski's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, reportedly texted multiple media outlets that "Rob Gronkowski has now been cleared by all his doctors to play Sunday in the Jets game."
Gronkowski's status has been up in the air for what feels like an eternity; though he has been practicing with the Patriots for several weeks now, Gronkowski has yet to make a game appearance for the 5-1 team. That situation reportedly led to some "resentment" toward Gronkowski within the Patriots' locker room. (QB Tom Brady later dismissed the notion that teammates were upset with Gronkowski's continued absence.)
The 24-year-old tight end struggled with a back injury this offseason (he missed an entire season in college due to similar problems) and had to go under the knife multiple times in hopes of repairing the forearm he fractured last season. The repair process was halted by post-surgery infections in the arm, and subsequent clean-up surgeries kept Gronkowski on the sideline throughout the preseason.
The Patriots avoided starting the season with him on the PUP list, though, which would have forced him to sit out the first six weeks of the season. They did so with the obvious hope that Gronkowski would make his debut before now, in Week 7. He was "50-50" to play as far back as Week 3 against Tampa Bay but opted on multiple occasions not to roll the dice.
Though the Patriots have found ways to win without him, Gronkowski immediately would step in and become Brady's top available target again. Through six games, Julian Edelman has led New England with 41 catches. Rookies Kenbrell Thompkins (21 receptions) and Aaron Dobson (19) are behind him, followed by injury-plagued receiver Danny Amendola (16). The most productive tight end to this point has been Michael Hoomanawanui with a mere eight receptions.
Contrast that number with the 106 combined catches Gronkowski and ex-Patriot Aaron Hernandez made in 2012, despite missing a total of 11 games between them, and it's easy to see how much different the New England attack may look with Gronkowski in the lineup. A two-time Pro Bowler, Gronkowski has averaged 62.3 catches over his three NFL seasons, and he has scored double-digit touchdowns every year. In fact, he led the league in touchdowns in 2011 with 17.
A healthy Gronkowski also should provide a boost to the Patriots' up-and-down run game. At an athletic 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Gronkowski has become one of the team's top blockers -- Pro Football Focus rated him as the No. 4 run-blocking tight end in football last season.
The Patriots also will welcome any emotional boost Gronkowski's return can provide. They have scrapped through the first six weeks of the season, with four of their five wins coming by seven points or less. Wins the next two weeks over the Jets and Dolphins, would secure their stranglehold on the AFC East.
And with Gronkowski finally ready to return, the Patriots may again look like a legitimate threat to make a Super Bowl run.BURKE & FARRAR: The Playbook: Previewing Broncos-Colts, Patriots-Jets and more Week 7 games