FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- Rob Gronkowski was a training camp spectator last summer while recovering from surgery.
This summer, after another operation, the New England Patriots star tight end is expected to be on the field for the first practice Thursday.
''He's been cleared to play,'' coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday.
That's welcome news to his teammates after a season in which Gronkowski played just seven regular-season games. He missed the first six following back surgery about a month before camp and the last three, plus both playoff games, with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
''We were all hoping Gronk would have a good recovery and so far he has,'' Patriots left guard Logan Mankins said. ''We'll just see where he is, how good he is right now. It's great to have him out there.''
The team could use his sure-handed receiving, powerful blocking and fun-loving personality.
''He's a tremendous player,'' defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. ''He's one of the best guys you could ever meet. He's a great guy off the field. He'll say 'hi' to anybody. He'll do anything for you.''
Gronkowski stayed healthy his first two seasons after the Patriots drafted him out of Arizona in the second round in 2010. He played all 32 regular-season games with 132 receptions and 27 touchdown catches.
But while blocking for an extra point in the 11th game of 2012, a 59-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts, he broke his left forearm. That injury ended a season in which he had 55 catches for 11 touchdowns and was chosen for his second consecutive Pro Bowl even though he couldn't play.
He had four forearm surgeries and a back operation. He watched training camp practices from the sideline, often wearing a T-shirt and shorts. His first practice in pads came last Sept. 1, seven days before the season opener.
After missing the first six games, he led all NFL tight ends in the next six with 37 catches and 560 yards receiving.
But his second reception in the next game was his last of the season. Safety T.J. Ward knocked him down with a hit to the right knee in a 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns in Foxborough on Dec. 8.
Gronkowski was driven off the field on a cart. He underwent surgery in January.
Less than seven months later, is there anything the Patriots can do to better protect him?
''The health of the team is the most important thing that we have,'' Belichick said. ''We always try to do everything we can to help all the players stay healthy and stay on the field. We do that for everybody, every single guy. It's a consideration for all them. Certainly Rob, but everybody.''
He said Gronkowski cannot be put on the physically unable to perform list because he's been cleared to play.
''Rob's always worked hard. He worked hard as a rookie,'' Belichick said. ''What we've seen, he's been consistent.''
Tom Brady has certainly seen Gronkowski's consistency as a receiver and blocker. With Gronkowski limited to seven games, the quarterback was sacked 40 times last season, one less than his career high in 2001, his first year as a starter.
''He's a very good blocker, especially for his position,'' Mankins said. ''A lot of times the guys that catch the ball as well as he does, they don't really block at all. They try to get in the way sometimes, but Gronk goes after people and he tries to block the best that he can and most of the time it's pretty good.''
His return also would give Brady his most reliable receiver. The team's other tight ends caught just 14 passes last season.
''He's a big target for Tom to get the ball to and he gets open,'' Mankins said. ''Anytime you can have Gronk on the field, it's great.''
Gronkowski was on the field at Gillette Stadium on July 1 at a Beyonce and Jay-Z concert where his knee didn't seem to inhibit his lively dancing.
Now he seems on target to showing his moves in a game, starting with the opener at Miami on Sept. 7.
''I'm happy to see his progress and see him coming into the season and staying healthy,'' Ninkovich said. ''Obviously, that's what everybody is talking about.''
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