TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — A refreshed Rob Gronkowski is back on the practice field with Tom Brady, sweating in the hot Florida sun, preparing for the duo’s first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The four-time All-Pro who was one of the most dominant tight ends in NFL history with the New England Patriots is loving every minute of it after spending a little more than a year in retirement.
“Definitely no regrets,” the 31-year-old said. “I’m here. I’m supposed to be here. I feel like I’m supposed to be here.”
Gronkowski hasn’t played in an NFL game since helping Brady and the Patriots win the Super Bowl in February 2019.
When Brady decided to leave New England as a free agent in March, ending a historic 20-year run that included nine Super Bowl appearances and six titles, the quarterback helped lure his favorite target back to the game.
The Buccaneers acquired Gronkowski, who had one year remaining on his contract with the Patriots, in a pre-draft trade in April. He said the 13 months he spent out of football gave his oft-injured body a chance to heal.
“Let me tell you, the first couple practices, it definitely felt weird. The game was really fast when I first got out there again. The defense felt really fast,” said Gronkowski, who had 521 receptions for 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns over nine seasons with the Patriots, along with another 81 catches for 1,163 yards and 12 TDs in 16 career playoff games.
”As time goes on and as the days go on, I feel better about myself being out there. My confidence keeps going up, the game is slowing down,” Gronkowski said. “I’m starting to pick up the offense more. … I have so much more to work on, and so much more to improve on, but I am really glad to be here.”
Bucs coach Bruce Arians joked earlier in training camp that the 6-foot-6, 268-pound tight end appeared to be in “New England shape … not Florida shape.”
It takes time for players new to practicing in Tampa to get acclimated to the relentless heat.
“The humidity is definitely a game-changer. … I would definitely say that I’m adapting,” Gronkowski said.
“I knew that was going to be a challenge and I’ve accepted that challenge. You just laugh about it when you’re out there on the field,” he added. “You laugh that your shoes are squishing (from sweat) and that you’re breathing extra hard. It’s a great challenge because it’s going to make you better in the long run.”
Arians likes what he’s seen on the field, going as far as to say this week that the 2020 version of Gronk reminds him of the five-time Pro Bowl selection five or six years ago. That was before a string of injuries and surgeries began to take their toll.
“He doesn’t have a gigantic elbow brace on. He’s moving, he’s running fast again. He’s got great body control,” the coach said. “The stiffness I saw at the end of his career with all the injuries looks like it’s gone.”
The Bucs had plenty of offensive playmakers even before bringing Gronkowski to town, including tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
The presence of Pro Bowl receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin also made Tampa Bay attractive to Brady, who figures to also get third-year running back Ronald Jones and recent addition LeSean McCoy involved in the passing game.
That raises the question of whether it might be wise to manage Gronkowski’s workload early in the season in hopes of keeping him healthy for a potential playoff run.
“We’ll play every game to win — whatever that takes. We can’t worry about December in September,” Arians said. “The load — we’ve got a lot of guys, so we can manage that as far as every game. We’re going to play every single game to win, so if that means he plays 50 plays or 30 plays, we’ll see.”
Gronkowski said he will accept whatever role he’s asked to play. He was happy to hear that Arians feels he’s moving like the Gronk of old.
“I’ll take that compliment,” the tight end said.
“The first couple of practices were a little weird … but now it’s starting to get to the point where we left off about 18 months ago, and that’s a good feeling,” Gronkowski added of working with Brady again. “It’s a good feeling when we connect with a pass, and all that good stuff. That’s the feeling it’s starting to be, and that’s the feeling we’re trying to get to every single day.”