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How should Patriots handle Rob Gronkowski? It's complicated

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- One of the more compelling personnel-based questions for the New England Patriots this week is the status of tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Should Gronkowski play as he works his way back from a groin injury? And if he does play, should he be managed carefully?

There are multiple factors to consider.

Medical decision vs. football decision: Gronkowski did not take part in any team drills or have what the coaching staff calls meaningful reps in practice Wednesday, and then was limited in team drills and meaningful reps Thursday. So he’s trending in the right direction, but still not 100 percent. Gronkowski had said Monday the injury was “nothing serious” but was less convincing when asked if he would play Sunday against the visiting Houston Texans, calling himself “day-to-day.” His situation starts with getting clearance medically. If that happens, then the coaching staff can decide how to manage him.

Patriots’ long-term thinking: While Gronkowski might be ready to play Sunday, there is also the line of thinking that lightening his load could be the best decision with the bigger picture in mind. Just as coach Bill Belichick often describes training camp as a balance between preparing for the opener and regular season, the same is true with some coaching decisions regarding how much to push an injured player. If the Patriots go full throttle with Gronkowski, it could threaten his effectiveness in the weeks to come, or make the 28-year-old more prone to re-injury.

Gronkowski’s financial incentive: In the offseason, Gronkowski's contract was sweetened with incentives that give him a chance to boost his salary in 2017 from $5.25 million to $10.75 million. For that to happen, he needs to play, and produce. So it would make sense that he’s pushing to play this week, and play a lot.

  • The first tier would earn Gronkowski $10.75 million with either 90 percent play time, 80 catches, 1,200 receiving yards or All-Pro recognition (he’s been All-Pro four times).

  • The second tier would earn him $8.75 million if he reached 80 percent play time, 70 catches, 1,000 receiving yards or 12 touchdowns.

  • The third tier would earn him $6.75 million if he reached 70 percent playing time, 60 receptions, 800 receiving yards or 10 touchdowns.

Through two games, Gronkowski has played 78.9 percent of the snaps and has eight catches for 149 yards and one touchdown.

Three-tight-end package was notable part of plan: After having just two tight ends active for the opener (Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen), the Patriots had three active for Sunday’s victory over the Saints. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels opened with the three-TE package (empty set) and called on it 13 times in the game with rookie Jacob Hollister as the No. 3 option. If Gronkowski isn’t available, it would take this personnel grouping out of the mix for McDaniels.