Ras-I Dowling continues routine of improvement

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Ras-I Dowling continues routine of improvement

FOXBORO -- Cornerback Ras-I Dowling was ready to go on Thursday. It was Day 3 of Patriots mini-camp and he had that left ankle taped as he took the practice field.
He, along with the rest of the team, walked back into the stadium 15 minutes later.
"We were just kind of shocked," Dowling drawled with a smile. "Everybody was ready to practice. A lot of guys were in the training room getting taped and then we got that news: 'You can go home a day early.'"
Whether or not the Patriots have cut mini-camp short in the past is still being debated -- sides taken depending on memory only. Deion Branch said it happened "back in the old days," but others insist Belichick's never done it in New England.
Either way, the players are now left to train on their own until July.
Dowling, who injured his hip during Week 2 of his rookie year and was relegated to IR, is still rehabbing. He had a successful surgery and has participated fully in OTAs and mini-camp (the ankle tape is for a college injury).
An update he gave reporters on the stadium field was breezy. It doesn't sound like any reason he won't be back and healthy in 2012.
"Dealing with the trainers. It's a great group we've got there with the training staff. Just getting in there with them -- they're giving me stuff to do. And just continuing to work hard.
"I think, conditioning-wise, I'll be working on my back-pedaling and different stuff. Doing it all."
Despite missing so much time, Dowling doesn't feel disadvantaged. He said it was good for him being around the team, watching film, learning the playbook.
Could he get back into a starting role by August?
Too early to tell.
"I can't tell you right now," he said. "Hopefully, I'll be able to help the team. I try to come out every year and just train as hard as I can in the offseason and try to have a better year every year."

When it comes to Gronkowski's restructured deal, 15 is the magic number

When it comes to Gronkowski's restructured deal, 15 is the magic number

Rob Gronkowski's contract looked like one of the NFL's best bargains not too long ago. Now, after agreeing to a contract restructure, he could be paid as the top tight end in the league if he stays healthy.

Granted, it's a gargantuan "if."

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Gronkowski's restructured deal will bump his salary for this upcoming season from $5.25 million to $10.75 million should he hit certain statistical thresholds or be named an All-Pro.

Per Schefter, Gronkowski earns $10.75 million if he plays 90 percent of the offensive snaps (which he's done once before in his career), or makes 80 catches (which he's done twice), or gains 1,200 yards receiving (once), or is named an All-Pro (three times). 

Those seem like lofty goals for the 28-year-old who's entering his eighth year as a pro. But history shows that if he stays on the field for a full season or thereabouts -- 15 games to be specific -- he'll get to where he wants to be. 

If you take out his rookie year, before he had established himself as a go-to option in the Patriots offense, Gronkowski has played in three seasons during which he's reached at least 15 games. In each of those three seasons, he's been named an All-Pro. In 2011, he hit all three statistical markers. In 2014, he hit one. In 2015, he hit none. 

The lesson? When Gronkowski stays relatively healthy throughout a given season, even if he doesn't reach the astronomical statistical heights he reached in his second year, there's a very good chance he's considered the best tight end in the NFL. 

And if that's the case again in 2017, he'll be paid like the best tight end in the NFL.

To hit the second tier of his restructured deal -- which would pay him $8.75 million, per Schefter -- Gronkowski needs to play 80 percent of the offensive snaps (which he's done twice), or make 70 catches (three times), or gain 1,000 receiving yards (three times), or catch 12 touchdowns (twice). 

To hit the third tier of his new deal and get $6.75 million, Gronkowski needs to play 70 percent of the snaps (which he's done four times), or make 60 catches (three times), or gain 800 receiving yards (three times), or score 10 touchdowns (five times). 

According to Spotrac, Jimmy Graham of the Seahawks is currently scheduled to be the tight end position's top earner next season at $10 million. Odds are that if Gronkowski avoids disaster and stays on the field, he'll eclipse that.

But the odds of him staying on the field are what they are: He's played in 15 games in four of seven pro seasons. 

The restructured deal seems to be the ultimate incentive for Gronkowski to get healthy and stay that way following last year's season-ending back surgery. If he can, the Patriots will reap the benefits of having the game's most dynamic offensive weapon on the field, and the player will be paid a far cry from what he was scheduled to make when the week began.