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Gronkowski, whose injury was traced to a big hit he absorbed from Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas on Nov. 13, played only eight games during the 2016 season. He also missed time earlier in the season with a hamstring injury and bruised lung.
The tight end's desire to play remains strong even though he has undergone eight surgeries as an NFL player by age 27.
When asked how long he plans to continue playing, Gronkowski told Champion: "I'm not really sure. I still love playing the game, and as of right now, I want to play as long as I can possibly play. My mindset is to keep on going."
His most recent back surgery was Gronkowski's third. He had two previous surgeries to repair herniated disks in his back -- in 2009, when he was at the University of Arizona and missed the entire season, and in 2013, his fourth season with the Patriots, when he underwent surgery in June and didn't return until Week 7.
Gronkowski finished the 2016 season with 25 catches for 540 yards and three touchdowns, and he watched from the sideline as his teammates rallied past the Atlanta Falcons to win Super Bowl LI and hoist the Lombardi trophy.
But there have been questions about Gronkowski's long-term future with the Patriots.
As TheMMQB.com's Albert Breer pointed out shortly after Gronk was placed on IR in December, Patriots history is not kind to players who face a potential decline, even stars. They traded Deion Branch at 27. They dealt away Richard Seymour at 29, days before a season opener. They discarded Randy Moss in-season, with Tom Brady on his way to an MVP campaign. They said goodbye to Logan Mankins without any real answer at guard at the outset of a championship season.
It happened to Chandler Jones last March, because of a bottleneck of contract situations on defense. It happened to Jamie Collins in October, when the same financial traffic-jam caused Collins to waver from the program.
And it will eventually happen to Gronkowski.
The question is when?
The Patriots absolutely plan for him to be on the team in 2017 and beyond, but as NFL.com recently suggested, "It's clear Gronk's future just got very difficult and very complicated."
One major issue, as CBS Boston's Matt Dolloff laid it out, "The Patriots have had a fully healthy Gronkowski at the end of the season through the playoffs just one time since his rookie year in 2010. That was in 2014, when they won Super Bowl XLIX and Gronk caught a touchdown pass from Brady in the game. In 2011, Gronk was active at the end of the season but was severely hampered by a high-ankle sprain, and in 2015, he was reasonably healthy but was playing through minor knee and back injuries. Every other postseason since 2010 has been spent on the shelf.
"Again, there’s no understating Gronk’s value when he’s on the field. But that’s exactly the issue: when he’s on the field. At what point is his on-field dominance not worth the injuries and lack of dependability to stay healthy by January? At what point does the onerous amount of maintenance off the field begin to outweigh his elite performance on it?"
All that said, Gronkowski is due a $4.25 million base salary in 2017; as Doloff put it, "Even half a season and no playoffs would make Gronk worth that price for the Patriots." But things could get interesting in 2018, when Gronk’s salary would jump to $8 million.
In the meantime, I'll continue to watch for more on Gronkowski's rehab and recovery in an effort to gauge his chances of actually being ready to start the season healthy and on the field of play.