Legwork for Pats TE Rob Gronkowski is still work in progress but his hands are as good as ever

Eric Adelson

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Of all the football players who Rob Gronkowski brings to mind, Adrian Peterson is not high on the list.

"Gronk" is a massive tight end known for his bruising play, his Thor-like touchdown spikes, his not-always-eloquent blurts and his horrendous late-night dancing. Peterson is one of the more explosive runners in NFL history.

Yet here we have Gronkowski trying to do what Peterson so famously did only two seasons ago: return from a torn ACL and MCL to start the next season after a brutal December injury.

A healthy Rob Gronkowski makes a big difference for QB Tom Brady. (AP)

Gronkowski was back in 11-on-11 drills on Sunday with a brace on his surgically repaired left forearm and another on his surgically repaired right knee. He was also back to doing some of the more delicate things that are often overlooked when his nightlife and his game are discussed.

In one drill, Gronkowski stood a couple of feet from a Patriots coach, who started throwing footballs at him point-blank. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end caught each one, and threw it back. Simple stuff.

Then the coach grabbed another football and started throwing that one as well. Gronkowski had to catch one while throwing the other back. He dropped not a one.

Finally, Gronkowski had to turn his back and put his hands at his sides. The coach tossed footballs over the top of Gronkowski's helmet and the tight end had to see the ball and catch it in a split-second. It's basically catching blind. Some players don't locate the ball until it's on the ground.

"Oh, it's hard," said rookie tight end Justin Jones. "Took me a couple practices just to figure it out." Gronkowski caught ball after ball. He dropped only two.

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Whether you're a teammate or a fantasy football owner, there really is no one like Gronk. His hands are rare objects, gargantuan and able to catch anything since he was a little boy and his father, Gordy Gronkowski, chucked tennis balls at him and his brothers until he stopped being afraid and started catching every one. Defenders will naturally aim for Gronkowski's legs this season, but they cannot take away his hands or his football mind.

"He's an endless pool of knowledge," Jones said. "A hard guy to replicate. There's no player like Gronk. He's a marvel – the best tight end in the league."

Part of the marvel is how he's this close to starting Week 1 – already cleared to play after a Dec. 8 tear of his right ACL and MCL. Adrian Peterson's return from a Dec. 24, 2011 knee injury was the story of the 2012 season, and even he didn't deal with a year like Gronkowski had in 2013: a fourth forearm surgery and back surgery even before he tore the leg ligaments.

He said Friday his off-season was "boring" because of the constant rehab. "It was miserable," he told reporters. "Hopefully that never happens again, and I don't wish nothing on anyone like I had in the past few years."

Gronkowski's status affects not only the Patriots, but the entire AFC East. Quarterback Tom Brady's passer rating was 95.8 with Gronkowski in the lineup over seven games last year and 80.3 in the other nine ballgames that Gronkowski missed. The team's regular-season red zone touchdown percentage was 68.8 percent with Gronkowski and 43.8 percent without. It's laughable to say Gronkowski is as valuable to the Pats as Peterson is to the Vikings, but it's not laughable to say he's more valuable to the Pats than Jimmy Graham, the league's highest-paid tight end, is to the Saints. Gronkowski has caught 42 touchdowns from Brady in only 50 regular-season games.

One huge advantage Gronkowski has in his attempt to return is the arms attached to those soft hands. Gronkowski is a wizard at using his arms to control and repel defenders. Pretty much every receiver gets separation with his legs, but Gronkowski is just as good at using his arms.

"He'll use that forearm to swat, push, nudge a guy," said Jones, a first-year player out of East Carolina. "He'll get close in to a guy and he knows how to not get flagged for it."

Hence the red zone brilliance. Before his injury-mangled 2013 season, he became the first tight end in NFL history to catch 10 touchdowns in two straight years. With those hands and those arms, his foot speed is a little less crucial to a full comeback.

Gronkowski said he's not 100 percent yet. He still isn't participating in contact drills, and his 11-on-11 inclusion on Sunday was brief and at three-quarters' speed. Yet he ran some routes for Brady and, of course, caught everything that was within his reach. He walked, jogged and cut without apparent pain.

His mentality is still unblemished. "I ain't changing that one bit," he said Friday. "I'm gonna go full-speed when I'm out there, and I'm gonna keep smashing and dashing everything I do."

Smashing and dashing. That sounds kinda like Adrian Peterson.