With Hunter Henry being lost for the season, the Chargers have a decision to make at tight end.
I still can’t get over the fact that Chargers tight end Hunter Henry tore his ACL on the first day of organized team activities (OTAs).
Henry will the miss the entire 2018 season. And, of course, the depth at the tight end position isn’t great.
Former Broncos tight end Virgil Green signed a three-year deal with the Chargers in the offseason. However, Green, 29, was brought in as a blocking tight end; he never surpassed 300 receiving yards in any of his seven seasons with Denver. Sean Culkin and Braedon Bowman, both of whom are entering their second seasons as a pro, are behind him. Culkin was active for just one game with the Chargers last year, but he flashed potential in the preseason, finishing with the second-most receptions (nine) and third-most yards (77). Meanwhile, Bowman was active for three games as a New York Jet but did not record any stats. Two undrafted rookies in Ben Johnson and Cole Hunt are also on the 90-man roster.
The Chargers need to sign somebody, and future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates might be the best option available. The Chargers had moved on from the 37-year-old Gates with the idea that Henry would finally take over No. 1 tight end duties for good. With Henry injured, Gates would be the team’s primary pass-catching tight end.
Gates knows the system. He also has the chemistry with quarterback Philip Rivers. But the days of him dominating are over. He finished the 2017 season with 30 receptions for 316 receiving yards and three touchdowns, the lowest totals since his rookie year in 2003. The coaching staff smartly gave Henry more playing time as the year went on. Gates did, however, make an impact when called upon late last season. He filled in for Henry, who missed the last two games due to a laceration on his kidney, and combined for 10 receptions for 127 yards and one touchdown in Weeks 16-17. He looked good, but was it because he had fresh legs?
Unfortunately, the other tight ends on the market are nothing to write home about. If I’m looking to sign one of those guys, it’d probably be Julius Thomas because of his production as a receiver. He’s totaled 226 receptions for 2,406 yards and 36 touchdowns in seven seasons. At 29 years old, he’s also one of the younger options (yeah, it’s slim pickings out there). The downside? Thomas has yet to play a full, 16-game season. He’s also been on three different teams (Broncos, Jaguars and Dolphins). Aside from having Peyton Manning as his QB, Thomas hasn’t played with good quarterbacks, which could be one of the reasons why his performance has dipped recently. Perhaps he can get back to that double-digit touchdown-type of season with Rivers tossing him the rock.
Another idea that many fans would like to see come to fruition is moving 2018 sixth-rounder Dylan Cantrell from receiver to tight end. The Texas Tech product was one of the best blockers coming out of college, and he has good hands and the athleticism to be a mismatch in the passing game. If the Chargers decide to go that route, the 6-foot-3, 226-pounder would have to gain at least 20 pounds to play the position, especially if lined up as an inline blocker. Most tight ends are taller and in that 250-260 range, but maybe he can become a Jordan Reed-like player. Reed is 6-foot-2 and 246 pounds, but unlike Cantrell, he played tight end (final two years) in college.
But you have to think about who the Chargers will have at receiver after this year. In 2019, Tyrell Williams will be an unrestricted free agent and Travis Benjamin will be 29 years old and in the final year of his contract (he could be cut if he has a poor 2018 season). Keenan Allen and Mike Williams should be the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, respectively, but injury concerns will always come with both players. Will that make the Chargers want to keep Cantrell at receiver? It could.
Again, losing Henry really hurts, but the Chargers have to figure out what to do next.