Rob Gronkowski is making steady progress from his forearm and back operations.
Now he just has to get back into football condition.
The star tight end isn't saying if he expects to play in New England's opener Sunday at Buffalo, but he's noticeably skinnier after cutting back on his usual workouts while recovering.
"I'm just rehabbing everything," Gronkowski said Wednesday. "I want to have my whole body strong and just have got to keep on grinding and keep on working on all aspects in order to get back."
Gronkowski had back surgery June 18, about a month after the fourth operation on the left forearm he broke last Nov. 18 against the Indianapolis Colts. He had surgery, missed five games, then returned for the regular-season finale. But he rebroke the forearm on Jan. 13 in the AFC divisional round when the Patriots beat the Houston Texans 41-28.
He's had three forearm surgeries since then, and said he hasn't had any setbacks.
On Wednesday, he participated on a limited basis in practice.
"Do I expect to play on Sunday," he asked. "I'm preparing every single day to the max of my ability, preparing every day to (do) the best I can. And when my number's called, that's when I'll play.
"I can't tell you when that will be."
He still isn't at full strength.
"It's not just the forearm and back, obviously," he said. "When you're taking off a little like that, you've got to get conditioned again. You've got to get stronger throughout your whole body, your legs, your upper body, your arms. So that's all in play, too. You just can't jump out there just because your arm's ready."
Being sidelined "was difficult," Gronkowski said. "That doesn't matter anymore. It's irrelevant now. The only thing relevant is moving forward every day."
He practiced in full pads on Monday for the first time since his back surgery. How did he look a couple of days later?
"Another couple days," coach Bill Belichick said. "We're trying to keep stringing them together, trying to keep heading in the right direction, just trying to keep taking it day by day."
Timing could be right
There may be no rush to get Gronkowski back since the Patriots' first two games are against AFC East opponents who they should beat, the Bills and the New York Jets. Their third game is on Sept. 22 at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
When Gronkowski had back surgery, it was reported that the recovery period for a player to return to a game was about 12 weeks. Sunday's opener is just two days before that.
"It doesn't matter what that says," Gronkowski said. "It just matters how your body feels, how the rehab program's going and how you're progressing every day. So you just look forward to every day."
Quarterback Tom Brady had experience playing without Gronkowski last season.
"For his first couple of years of his career, he didn't miss anything and then he missed some games last year," Brady said, "Then we kind of went into, `OK, this is what we're doing without Gronk.' And that's the situation we've been in all spring and summer.
"It's like he hasn't even been a part of the team. I mean, he's been a part of the team, doing what he needs to do to get ready, but in terms of what our offense was doing, the other guys have to step in and do the job that we're asking them to do."
Those guys are free-agent rookie Zach Sudfeld, and veterans Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan.
Sudfeld spent six years at Nevada, including one as a redshirt freshman and two with a medical redshirt. Gronkowski's surgeries, the arrest of Aaron Hernandez on a murder charge and his own strong preseason gave Sudfeld his chance at tight end.
"He's been teaching me a lot," Sudfeld said.
Gronkowski found that amusing.
"Oh, man, he's older than me (by 27 days)," Gronkowski said with a laugh. "He's a hard worker and a good player, so I'm looking forward to get out there with him and the rest of the team. It's just going to be a lot of fun."
Whenever that is.