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Free of 'gigantic' elbow brace, Rob Gronkowski looking different to Bucs staff

Rob Gronkowski's return to the NFL came with one rather large question: Is he healthy enough to play?

Gronkowski's retirement after the 2018 season didn't come because he'd aged out of the game, or because his skills weren't at a high enough level to compete in the NFL. It largely happened because his body simply told him it wanted no more.

What was once reality is no longer the case now that Gronkowski has moved south for the Sunshine State, at least according to Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, who told reporters Thursday he sees a different Gronkowski in practice, a healthy version of the tight end. Perhaps most importantly, it's a version of Gronkowski that doesn't require large contraptions to help him use his limbs.

Gronkowski is no longer stiff, and "doesn't have a gigantic elbow brace on," Arians said, per The Athletic's Greg Auman.

Gronkowski's final game, Super Bowl LIII, included him catching a pass between three defenders that set up New England's game-winning touchdown. But even as he streaked up the sideline for an earlier reception, and as he fell to the ground while catching the game-changing completion with less than eight minutes to play in the sport's biggest game, the toll of nine NFL seasons was evident.

Gronkowski had seemed stiff for some time, unable to move as fluidly as he once did. He'd been wearing the massive elbow brace because of a previous injury for some time.

Now he's free of the brace and feeling good, a product of a year off and of gaining a better understanding of his body, Gronkowski said, per NFL Network's James Palmer. The tight end described physical maintenance as being a full-time job now that he's over 30. He's fortunate to know the supposed master of that department, Tom Brady, with whom he's been working consistently on prolonging his career via healthier choices, including in the kitchen.

Avocado ice cream or not -- it might melt quicker in Florida -- Gronkowski said his new home feels like the right one, telling reporters, "I feel like I'm supposed to be here," per NFL Network's Judy Battista.

Part of such an acclimation included reacquainting himself with the incredible speed of the NFL game, which Gronkowski said felt fast to him for his first few days back. Now, though, it's slowing down for him, potentially clearing the deck for a major contribution in 2020.

Gronkowski told reporters he's back and ready to give it his all, saying Thursday he's not thinking about possible snap limits and would play every down if asked. He's not the lone playmaker in the tight end room, which also includes O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

He might not have to carry the load at the position, but if he decides to, he'll have a healthier back to do so. Gronk spikes might again be in our future.

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