The New England Patriots are optimistic doctors will clear Rob Gronkowski to play this week and that the tight end will make his season debut Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, according to league sources.
Gronkowski has missed the Patriots' first five games following a series of surgeries on his fractured forearm and ailing back.
ProFootballTalk.com had earlier reported that Gronkowski was expected to return this week.
Dr. James Andrews is serving as an independent physician and is charged with determining whether Gronkowski is cleared to play, a source told ESPN. Andrews is considered the most accomplished orthopedic surgeon in the world, but he didn't operate on Gronkowski.
If Gronkowski plays, it will validate the team's decision to keep him on the 53-man roster rather than placing him on the physically unable to perform list. If not, the Patriots will have wasted a roster spot because Gronkowski would have been eligible to return after missing six games if he had been placed on the PUP list.
Quarterback Tom Brady depends heavily on Gronkowski, especially in the red zone. The Patriots (4-1) have gone from leading the NFL in touchdowns last season to ranking ahead of only the winless Jacksonville Jaguars this season.
The Patriots are coming off their worst offensive performance of the Brady era, a 13-6 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in which they failed to score a touchdown, ending Brady's streak of games with at least one touchdown pass at 52.
Gronkowski's health issues began when he fractured his left forearm in the fourth quarter of a 59-24 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 18, 2012. The injury occurred on an extra point, and Gronkowski (a blocker on the play) underwent surgery the next day.
He returned to action in the regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 30. He was charted on the field for 25 snaps that day, a limited workload, and did not look entirely comfortable as he favored the injured forearm while running.
In an AFC divisional round playoff victory two weeks later over the Houston Texans, Gronkowski landed on his left forearm on the seventh offensive play and rebroke it. He underwent surgery the next day.
About a month later, Gronkowski underwent a third surgery on the forearm, this time for an infection. After undergoing a series of antibiotic treatments, with doctors feeling confident the infection had been eradicated, Gronkowski had a fourth surgery on the forearm May 20. That surgery replaced the plate in the forearm, as doctors generally like to remove hardware that has been exposed to infection, and allowed doctors to confirm the infection had been eradicated.
While recovering from the fourth forearm surgery, Gronkowski underwent surgery on his back -- called a microscopic lumbar discectomy -- on June 18. Dr. Robert Watkins performed the surgery.
ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss contributed to this report.