Mark Miller

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San Diego Chargers All-Pro, future Hall-Of-Fame tight end Antonio Gates made headlines this summer when he said he wanted a lighter workload this season. After years of dealing with debilitating plantar fasciitis, Gates looked like his old self as he caught 12 touchdowns, one short of his career high of 13 touchdowns in his breakout 2004 season.

The next touchdown Gates catches will be the 100th of his career, the rarest of air for a tight end. To date, only one tight end has caught more than 100 touchdown passes in NFL history, Kansas City great Tony Gonzalez with 111. Gates will do it in three fewer seasons than Gonzalez.

This will be a season to watch number 85 for a number of reasons. Barring injury, he is most assuredly going to catch number 100. It will be worth keeping an eye on Gates all season to see if Philip Rivers can get him 13 touchdowns this season, placing him at No. 1 all-time for touchdown catches by a tight end.

Fittingly, like Rivers, Gates is also in the last year of his contract.

Can all this talk of wanting a lighter workload be indicative of wanting to complete an unspoken farewell tour in one piece? No one is more deserving of a victory lap than man that revolutionized the tight end position by using his basketball background as a standout frontcourt player at Kent State to become the greatest undrafted free agent in Chargers history.

While it is possible Gates could continue his career beyond this season, the writing is on the wall. It is time for the heir apparent to Gates’ throne to step up and claim it. Who will do it? Let’s look at the candidates.

Ladarius Green: Now entering his fourth season on the roster, the 6’6″, 240 lb. Green was expected to have a breakout year last season. Instead, Gates found the fountain of youth and played most of the snaps last season. Green has shown flashes of potential on offense. The highlight of his season was a 60-yard touchdown grab against Kansas City, where he showed great agility and surprising breakaway speed for a man his size. He’s had three seasons to learn from the master, now it’s time for him to put up or shut up.

John Phillips: The 6’5″, 250 pounder is a seven-year veteran. Used for protection, Phillips proved to be an asset due to his skill as a blocker. During the 15 games he played for the Chargers last season, he lined up at fullback in addition to his tight end duties. He caught one pass for one yard last year, but it went for a touchdown. A knee injury landed him on IR for the last game of the season, but he looks to be ready to go when the new season begins.

David Johnson: Like Phillips, Johnson (6’2″, 260) is entering his seventh season. Signed away from the Pittsburgh Steelers last offseason, Johnson was primarily used as the de facto fullback. He was a good physical point of attack blocker and utilized on special teams. He had one reception for four yards. Expect more of the same this season unless an unknown makes a stronger case for his spot.

Kyle Miller: Two weeks ago the Chargers claimed Miller off waivers from the Atlanta Falcons. The 6’5″, 260 pound product out of Mount Union is a second-year pro. He played one game with Indianapolis in 2012 and was cut from the Miami Dolphins in 2013. Last season he was on the Falcons practice squad. Miller is the son of former NFL quarterback Mark Miller. At 27, he is still looking for his first official NFL reception. In college, he was a three-time Ohio Athletic Conference first team selection as a tight end. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to show what he can do in training camp.

Dave Paulson: The (6’4″, 240) former Oregon Duck spent the first two years of his NFL career (2012, 13) in Pittsburgh. The Chargers signed him to their practice squad shortly after the beginning of last season. Coming from Oregon, Paulson was recognized as a dependable pass catcher and leader. His ability to block will most likely determine whether he will make the team.

UDFA rookies Eric Frohnapfel and Brain Parker: Frohnapfel is an intriguing prospect from a size standpoint. He stands 6’7″ and weights 235 pounds. As a member of the Marshall Thundering Herd he accounted for 37 catches for 420 yards and five touchdowns. If his blocking and route running are on par, he could be an unstoppable red zone target after the staff gets time to coach him up.

The 6’4″, 260 lb. Parker logged similar numbers in college at Albany, where he collected 39 balls for 500 yards and five touchdowns. The two are camp bodies but the scouts have seen enough impressive tape on them to extend invites and give them the chance to make the team. The Chargers obviously won’t carry seven tight ends on the roster, but three on the active roster and one on the practice squad is very likely.

At this point Green, other than Gates, is the only person I would pen onto the opening day roster. Everyone else is expendable. All of these players will have the advantage of being able to watch how a future first ballot Hall-Of-Fame player at their position prepares and trains. They will also have the benefit of having a legend of the game as their position coach in Buffalo Bills’ great Pete Metzelaars. Metzelaars won a Super Bowl ring as an offensive quality control coach for the Indianapolis Colts. It’s up to them to learn and adapt as much of their expertise to their game as they can.

We all look forward to seeing this camp battle play out. Who do you think will secure the role of Rivers’ next security blanket?

 

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