Despite not starting the 2018 season on the roster of the Los Angeles Chargers, Antonio Gates came back for his 16th season in the NFL.
Gates seemed to be an afterthought in Los Angeles after the team signed Virgil Green in free agency, knowing that it still had Hunter Henry on the roster. Of course, that all changed when Henry tore his ACL in May.
The team was still in no hurry to sign Gates. Whether that is because Gates didn’t want to participate in training camp or because the Chargers were hoping a guy like Sean Culkin or Braedon Bowman would step up so that they didn’t have to bring Gates back is anyone’s guess.
In any event, the team signed Gates just after the final game of the preseason to give the team another option at tight end. Though Gates has clearly lost a step (maybe even a step and a half), he still did what he could to help the team win.
Pro Football Reference shows that Gates was on the field for just 36.5 percent of the team’s offensive snaps last season while Green saw action on 67.7 percent of the team’s snaps. That number can be deceiving as Green is a blocking tight end and was used when the team ran the ball.
Despite catching just 28 passes last year (the lowest since his rookie season), Gates still led the Chargers in receptions by a tight end. He caught two touchdowns but also had a costly, game-changing fumble in Week 16 against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Chargers will get a healthy Henry back in the lineup in 2019 and one could assume that will eliminate any need for Gates. With Green as the power tight end on running plays, the Chargers also have Culkin and Austin Roberts on the roster. The team also signed Vince Mayle to a futures deal after the season.
It sounds strange to put some of those names in the same sentence as Gates, perhaps the greatest tight end the league has ever seen, but they are much younger players and probably have more of an upside at this point.
It’s hard to say goodbye to Gates, especially when he still gives 100 percent of himself to help the Chargers reach their ultimate goal. But if not for Henry getting hurt last year, he would have never returned. Did he do anything to change the team’s mind with his performance last season?
Tom Telesco has stated that there is a chance he will be back. However, when you only have 53 spots on a roster, should you use one on a player who will be 39 years old and has his best days behind him?
It’s hard to say.
If the Chargers do re-sign Gates, it will be purely out of loyalty. There won’t be a huge market for the tight end’s services and he likely wouldn’t sign somewhere else anyway. However, signing him to another one-year deal where he can be part of a team in line to contend for the Super Bowl won’t hurt anything.
The Chargers can sign him toward the end of the preseason again and have him work behind Henry as a situational pass catcher. It doesn’t seem like Culkin or any of the other tight ends on the roster will ever blossom into players that the team can rely upon. Of course, if one of them steps up in camp, then the team can wave farewell to Gates. But, assuming that doesn’t happen, Gates should come back for one more season.
Decision: Re-sign Gates