San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates has his place as one of the best offensive players in team history. Undrafted out of Kent State in 2003, Gates has put together a remarkable career for a guy who played basketball in college.
But Gates will turn 36 years old in a couple of weeks and will be entering season No. 14 in the league. Still, that didn’t stop general manager Tom Telesco from re-signing the veteran tight end in favor of a younger, more athletic Ladarius Green.
With Green moving on and joining the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent, the Chargers chose to use a second-round draft pick on Hunter Henry out of Arkansas.
Henry isn’t just any rookie tight end. He won the John Mackey Award last season, given to the nation’s top tight end. He has great hands and and will be a threat in every level of the passing game. But he’s not one of those tight ends that will come off the field on running downs because he is also a superior run-blocker.
Son of a former tackle, Hunter Henry's blocking and youth could see Chargers rookie out-snap Antonio Gates in 2016. https://t.co/hVUOF4uesN
— Michael Gehlken (@sdutGehlken) April 30, 2016
In short, Henry is good enough to be the team’s starting tight end as a rookie, relegating Gates to a more limited role. How limited will that role be? That remains to be seen.
There is no questioning Gates’ importance to the team. It’s tough to even question his ability to be productive. After all, he caught 56 passes and had five touchdown receptions while playing in just 11 games last year.
Gates currently ranks No. 27 on the all-time receiving list with 844 career receptions. Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez are the only tight ends with more receptions than Gates in NFL history.
But there have been other great tight ends who have played many years in the league. However, not many of them have stuck around as long as Gates.
Shannon Sharpe retired at 35 years of age. Witten is still just 34 and Heath Miller—No. 5 on the all-time list in terms of receptions by a tight end—just decided to hang up the cleats at 33 years of age. Only Gonzalez played past 36 years old and though he was productive in his final season, finding production at that age for a tight end is rare.
But Gates is a rare player, so will he be able to find the fountain of youth this year?
The Chargers didn’t draft Henry to sit on the bench, so expect Gates to come in on obvious passing downs and red-zone opportunities. Gates has always had a knack for finding the end zone, and that won’t change, even if he is aging.
Imagine an offense that has a healthy Keenan Allen and a shifty, athletic Travis Benjamin at the wide receiver spots. Then you add in the big Henry at the tight end spot and suddenly, Gates doesn’t receive anywhere near the attention he has from defenses throughout his career.
Gates has long been the focal point of the Chargers’ passing game, but he could actually thrive in a system that has that many options. Gates could easily find a way to be a significant contributor, particularly when you consider he’ll be catching passes from the same quarterback he’s had throughout the majority of his time in San Diego.
Gates and Philip Rivers have a connection you don’t find too often between a quarterback and a tight end. But Rivers will not hesitate to go to Gates in clutch situations and may still prefer him over any pass-catcher on the squad.
The key for Gates will be his health. If he can stay in the lineup this year, he can easily match his production in 2015 and likely surpass those numbers. Look for him to be the team’s main target inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
For 2016, there’s no reason to worry about whether or not Gates can still perform. There’s really nothing to indicate he can’t or won’t. However, Chargers fans should probably enjoy him while he’s around. The precedent for a tight end playing and still being a key factor past the age of 37—which he will turn next June—is nil.