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When New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski will return remains a mystery that grows murkier by the day.
Gronkowski and receiver Danny Amendola (groin) were downgraded to out by the team for Sunday night's game against the Falcons.
Gronkowski has gone through the past two weeks of practice running around, catching touchdown passes and practicing like he would play, even taking hits and getting tackled during practice, according to sources. Those who have watched him the past two weeks insist Gronkowski looks like he's absolutely ready to play -- and are baffled why he has not yet appeared in a game this season. Patriots players have been waiting and wondering what the holdup is.
But it goes beyond the Patriots' decision and to Gronkowski's circle of family, friends and advisers, who have not been as anxious as the rest of New England to have the tight end back on the field, even though he caught about 15 passes in practice as recently as Thursday, according to sources. It sets up a mystery for which only Gronkowski's inner circle would appear to have the answer.
|Rob Gronkowski's circle of family, friends and advisers would like to ensure the tight end is fully healthy before he plays again, sources say.|
Gronkowski's inner circle would like to ensure that Gronkowski is fully recovered from his five surgeries in the past year -- four on his forearm, one on his back in June -- before the tight end plays again, according to sources. Their belief is that the Patriots are 3-0 without him, they're playing a non-conference game Sunday night, and there's no need to rush Gronkowski back until the doctors are fully convinced it's OK for him to return.
The divide between the Patriots and Gronkowski's inner circle had been earlier reported by the Boston Herald.
Sometimes events such as these are tied to a player's contract, but Gronkowski's bonus money does not become a factor until the 2015 season. The Patriots have until the last day of the 2015 league year to exercise a $10 million option bonus payment for the 2016-2019 seasons. If they choose not to pay the bonus, then Gronkowski would become a free agent after the 2015 season because there is a clause in his deal that prohibits the Patriots from using either of their franchise tags on him for 2016 if they don't exercise the option in 2015.
His $3.75 million base salary for next season is fully guaranteed, as is his $250,000 offseason bonus, ensuring he will make $4 million next year. In 2015, his $4.75 million base salary is guaranteed for injury only and becomes guaranteed for skill and cap on the fifth day of the 2015 waiver period. He also has a $250,000 offseason bonus so total salary in 2015 is $5 million.
On Sept. 22, Patriots team president Jonathan Kraft was asked on his weekly radio interview on 98.5 The Sports Hub about the medical process in managing injuries and determining a course of action with Amendola, specifically, when it came to getting opinions from doctors not affiliated with the team.
"At the end of the day, we care about the players' long-term health and in the case of guys like Danny and Rob who are signed to this team for a long time, it's not about this week and next week, it's about the next 4-5 years and we collectively want to make the right decision," he said.
The Patriots didn't downgrade any other players on Saturday, including offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (foot) and running back Leon Washington (thigh).
ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss contributed to this report.