Big day on health front for Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – As New England Patriots players walked off the field following Monday's practice, always excitable tight end Rob Gronkowski looked back at a reporter and smiled.

“Seven-on-seven! Seven-on-seven! Make sure you mark it down!” Gronkowski said playfully.

Gronkowski has seemed amused at daily reports of his progress from a torn right ACL, and on Monday, he played right along by pointing out to a reporter that he participated in 7-on-7 drills for the first time in training camp. This inches Gronkowski one step closer to taking part in full-team drills and eventually absorbing contract.

That’s significant news.

Meanwhile, Gronkowski, who wore a red non-contact jersey during Monday’s practice, wasn’t the only player to graduate to a new level of participation.

In a double-barreled delivery of good news for the Patriots, second-year receiver Aaron Dobson (left foot) was removed from the active/physically-unable-to-perform list and rookie Dominique Easley was activated off the active/non-football-injury list as they both practiced for the first time this year, solely working in individual drills in a session that was held in light shoulder pads and helmets.

The timing of these moves, coming during the 13th practice of training camp, is significant because it positions all three players to be ready to contribute for the regular-season opener Sept. 7 in Miami.

The feeling here has been that if Dobson and/or Easley weren’t activated by the start of next week, it threatened their chances to be ready for the opener. While missing the first 12 practices of camp isn’t ideal, it is ground that can still be made up, especially for Easley because his position doesn’t have as much nuance as others, like receiver with Dobson. For Dobson, it helps that he already has been in the system for a year.

Bill Belichick often says that the goals in training camp are two-fold – to prepare for the regular-season opener and the overall 16-game season – and the health management of Gronkowski, Dobson and Easley has been directly related to that to this point in camp.

The Eagles are coming to town for joint practices Tuesday and Wednesday, and it’s highly unlikely that Gronkowski, Dobson and Easley will be significant participants in that work, or play in Friday’s preseason game. They still need more time.

We’ll then see if anything changes next week as the team goes through a variation of the game-planning process for the third preseason game Aug. 22 against the Panthers. And after that, the Patriots will shift their preparations into a higher gear for the regular-season opener.

So things are moving quickly, and Monday was a significant step for Gronkowski, Dobson and Easley to be in the mix when the games start to count for real.