FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The biggest applause Thursday morning from the thousands of fans in attendance as the New England Patriots opened training camp wasn't for quarterback Tom Brady. That honor was saved for tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Though the Pro Bowler was a limited participant for the first practice session of the summer -- he did not take part in group or team drills, and he got no reps against defenders -- the mere fact that New England's second-most-important offensive player was on the field was a major positive.

One day after coach Bill Belichick announced that Gronkowski was cleared medically as he works back from the torn ACL he sustained last December against the Browns, fans and players alike were happy to see big No. 87 in his jersey and on the field.

"It's a positive," Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins said. "We were all hoping Gronk would have a good recovery. So far he has. We'll just see where he is and how good he is right now. It's great to have him out there. He's a dynamic blocker. He does a great job in the blocking, and he's a big target for Tom (Brady) to get the ball to and he gets open.

"Any time you can have Gronk on the field, it's good."

No one knows that better than Brady, who saw his own production and effectiveness peak last season in the six-plus games in which Gronkowski was healthy and in the lineup. However, the quarterback is always aware that he has to be prepared for life without his tight end, as was the case in the postseason the last two years.

"If he's not out there, then we still have to find a way to do it, and I think really that's a lesson that we've learned," Brady said. "You've got to try to win, no matter who is out there. You've got to try to compete at a high level. When you have great players like that that are on the field, it helps you a lot. Your margin of error goes up. But you've got to prepare for both.

"We've had different times over the offseason where certain guys have been in there, certain guys haven't, but I don't think the expectations have changed. You've still got to go out and execute the play the best way you know how to and try to do it at a high level on a consistent basis."

With Gronkowski cleared to open camp, it means that the physically unable to perform option is removed from the equation moving forward. While the Patriots are expected to be cautious with the tight end, all signs continue to point to him being ready for opening day in Miami.

That will be a far cry from a year ago when he missed the first six weeks with arm and back injuries. It also will be a big boost for a Patriots offense that relies on the tight end almost as much as it does Brady to move the ball and score points.

Brady dealt with a total overhaul of his weapons leading into training camp last summer. With Gronkowski hurt, slot receiver Wes Welker gone to the Denver Broncos and tight end Aaron Hernandez arrested on murder charges, Brady entered 2013 with a bunch of new and young faces to work with. Heading into his second season with the likes of veteran wide receiver Danny Amendola as well as returning second-year receivers Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce, there are higher expectations for the passing attack that struggled so mightily without Gronkowski a year ago.

Still, Brady is far from taking anything for granted.

"It's about making improvements, and I think it goes from the guys who are newest on the team to the guys who are oldest on the team," Brady said on the first day of training camp. "I don't think you ever have it all figured out. You try to come out here and you work hard to put yourself in a good position and to compete, and when you get a chance and you get your opportunity, you've got to go out and make it happen.

"It's really everybody. There's nobody that's immune to it. You've got to put the work in. You've got to give it everything you've got, and like I said, hopefully on a daily basis you continue to make improvements. This game is a very humbling game. You can't ever think that you've got it all figured out. You've got to go out there and prove it every single day."

Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork was a full-go for the first day of training camp as he returns from the torn Achilles that cost him all but four games a year ago. The veteran clearly wants to put the injury in the past.

"I'm looking forward," he said. "Right now, I just feel good. I don't know what's going to happen further down the road, but right now I feel good. I'm happy to be out here with my teammates."

Missing all those games a year ago, dealing with the first injury of his now 11-year career, Wilfork has a newfound view of his job.

"I always appreciate the game, but being out last year, it just made me dwell on the things a little bit more and appreciate them a lot, lot more," Wilfork said. "You think about things a little differently now going through what I've been through -- my first time being injured. It's one of those things, I had a road block in the road, and what am I going to do about it?

"With the teammates I have, with my coaches, with my family -- that's a big supporter of mine, my family -- just having somebody that you can talk to every day, come and work out every day and have guys surrounding you and just being able to comfort you when times get tough.

"Just having someone to talk to, I think this team does a real good job of that. Everybody just sending you a text or a phone call or just coming to your house to see how you're doing -- it went a long ways for me, and I really appreciate it from everybody."