FOXBORO -- Rob Gronkowski took another step in his road back to full practice participation during Monday's training camp session. He took part in 11-on-11 work for the first time this summer, catching a few passes from Tom Brady. He also saw extended reps in 7-on-7 work.
For Gronkowski -- who did not sport the red non-contact jersey we have seen on him earlier in camp -- it was an encouraging afternoon.
"Always a step forward participating more and more," Gronkowski said. "Probably might tomorrow pick it up even more so it's going well so far. No setbacks or anything. Just having a blast competing out there catching some balls and making some plays."
The talented tight end was quick to point out that he still isn't facing full contact drills, but he said that he hopes to soon get a greater number of repetitions in team work and participate in more blocking drills.
Gronkowski confirmed that he's hoping to play in all 16 regular-season games this year -- something he stated was one of his goals earlier in camp.
"I'm still operating off the same plan," Gronkowski said with a smile. Pro Football Talk reported last week that there's about a "50-50" chance he'll be ready to play Week 1.
From the beginning of training camp, Gronkowski worked to stay ready for the moment he would be cleared to participate in more game-like situations. He has caught countless passes from quarterback Tom Brady in one-on-one situations, and he's taken part in drills on air (no defense) with the rest of his offensive teammates whenever possible.
He participated in 7-on-7 work for the first time last week.
"It's huge," Gronkowski said. "You can't just jump right into 11-on-11 action. [You have to be] doing one-on-ones, getting your body acclimated, getting your legs underneath you all before that. That's why it's always good to do everything I was doing leading up to it so when I was out there today I felt like I was prepared, I felt like I was ready to go."
He's been playing with Brady for weeks, but those periods of practice are nothing like what he saw at the end of Monday's session when it appeared as though the top offensive unit -- including Gronkowski -- went against the top defensive unit.
On the first play of the period, Brady found Gronkowski for a good gain in the middle of the field. Gronkowski later caught another when he beat Rob Ninkovich in coverage and reeled in a pass with Devin McCourty in pursuit.
"It's definitely huge to get it going and be on the same page with the quarterback," Gronkowski said. "Not just the quarterback but you have to be on the same page with the wide receivers, be on different levels on the routes. We're all on the same page as an offense as a whole. I've been working with Tom since I've been out here, though. But we haven't been doing it versus a defense or anything. So it was good to be right out there and boom -- just like we've never missed before. He hit me, I think I got a couple passes thrown to me for catches in the 11-on-11 so that was good."
As ready as Gronkowski appeared -- he seemed to be moving fluidly on the surgically-repaired knee that prematurely ended his 2013 season -- he admitted he has work to do in order to get back to normal.
Both his stamina and his hands could use some work, he explained.
During a 7-on-7 portion of practice, Gronkowski caught a pass near the line of scrimmage and along the sideline. When he snared it and turned up the field, undrafted rookie corner Malcolm Butler was quickly on Gronkowski and poked the ball away for a fumble.
Gronkowski hasn't seen many defenders -- if any -- play him so aggressively this summer. He said he was a little surprised at how fast Butler was on top of him.
"Definitely," he said. "Gotta get back used to it. He made a great play, but on my behalf, I gotta tuck that ball in and not let him do that. Just a little rust I gotta get knocked off."
Reporters and cameras will have brief access to practices going forward, but otherwise they will be closed. We will rely on attendance reports and team-issued practice reports from here on out to learn about Gronkowski's participation level.
That he was out there and a near-full participant to start this week, though, made Monday's workout a definitive step in the right direction for Gronkowski and the rest of the Patriots offense.