Patriots optimistic Rob Gronkowski will return vs. Jets, sources say

After missing three of the past four games with a lingering back injury, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is expected to be able to play next weekend against the New York Jets, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter.

The Patriots are on a bye this week.

Gronkowski has shown improvement in the practices leading up to the bye. As the Patriots embark on their postseason push, they are expected to get back a weapon who is routinely double-covered in the red zone, which should be a boost to their offense.

There were obvious signs of progress with Gronkowski even before the bye week. On Oct. 21, the team didn't want him traveling on the plane because of his back, according to coach Bill Belichick. But on Sunday, Gronkowski joined the Patriots on the flight to Nashville ahead of their loss to the Tennessee Titans.

"We took him down there because he was doing better, but in the end he wasn't able to go," Belichick said in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI.

With just 29 receptions for 448 yards and one touchdown, Gronkowski's production is notably lower through seven games than it has been in the past (although NFL Next Gen Stats note that he has been open -- with at least 3 yards of separation at the arrival of the pass -- on 37 percent of his targets).

Nevertheless, Tom Brady said he's hoping his star tight end returns soon.

"Absolutely. I've played a lot of football with him, and I think I have a lot of trust and confidence in a lot of the things that have happened over the years," the quarterback said last week. "When he's not there, there's a different level with other players. Sometimes we don't try things because Gronk isn't in there. Sometimes we do.

"Obviously, the more dependable, consistent players you have on the field, the more productive and efficient you'll be, which leads to more points, which leads to better opportunities to win the game, which is ultimately the reason we're all here."

Information from ESPN's Mike Reiss was used in this report.