Since the “Air-Coryell” days of the 80s, the San Diego Chargers have been famous for having high powered, up-and-down the field passing offenses. Quarterback Dan Fouts led an aerial assault that was exciting and unrelenting. During that era, a few pass receivers stand out: wide receivers Charlie Joiner, John Jefferson, Wes Chandler and, of course, tight end Kellen Winslow. Winslow revolutionized the position by demonstrating that tight ends, usually used primarily for blocking purposes, could be used as impact receivers. Kellen posed a match-up problem for opposing defenses because of his size, speed and phenomenal catching ability. Does a defensive coordinator place a safety on him to match up size and strength, knowing that the safety is going to have difficulty running with him? Does he dare try to cover him with a nickel cornerback as a better speed match up and chance the defender being manhandled after the catch? Winslow’s dominant career has forever altered the NFL landscape- as most tight ends today are viewed more like wide receivers than offensive lineman. It is with this in mind that I take a close look at the players at tight end on the Chargers’ roster heading into the off-season.
The undrafted basketball player from Kent State University has been a fixture in the Charger passing attack for 11 great seasons. The future Hall-of-Famer is the Chargers all-time leader for career touchdown receptions with 87. In fact, the Rivers to Gates combination is the NFL’s all-time leading QB-to-TE touchdown scoring tandem with 60 scores. Rather than continue listing the myriad of accolades bestowed upon Gates, let’s take a closer look at the here and now. Surprisingly, Gates was able to stay healthy for an entire season, something he had struggled to do for several years in a row. Nagging foot issues have hampered him and limited his effectiveness when he was able to play. For the first time in years, Antonio felt 100% for most of the season. Production rebounded as a result as Gates improved upon a 49 reception season in 2012, finishing with a team high 77 catches in 2013. He racked up 872 yards and scored 4 touchdowns. Not bad for an aging star at 33 years old. It wasn’t all good news however, as Chargers fans witnessed numerous dropped passes from the perennial all-pro…something rarely seen from the big guy throughout his career. He also coughed the ball up a couple times by not securing the ball properly after the catch. Despite these missteps, the season was a breath of fresh air for fans that had begun to accept the thought that this legendary player was on the decline. Last season showed that, though he isn’t as shifty and quick as he once was, Gates is still a viable threat in the passing game. Despite a price tag of $5 million entering 2014 , expect “Gatesy” to be the starting tight end in his 12th season with the Bolts.
In the 4th round of the 2012 NFL draft, ex-General Manager A.J. Smith selected a 6’6″, 240 pound tight end out of Louisiana-Lafayette. I remember pumping my fists wildly and grinning ear to ear. This was the guy I had hoped we would snag on day two of the draft. Being from the Midwest, I had actually seen a couple ULL games on television and I remember being amazed at what Green was capable of. At the time, Antonio Gates was having injury issues and his absence from the lineup was devastating. I felt like it was time to begin grooming an heir-apparent for our superstar tight end. Not only does Ladarius have a tall frame, he possesses unbelievable speed for someone that big. He ran the 40 yard dash in 4.53 seconds at the 2012 combine. This young man presents a huge match-up problem for defensive coordinators. The knock against Green was his blocking ability. To say it was inadequate would be putting it mildly. He needed serious “coaching up” in that area, which is likely what kept him from being selected sooner in the draft. Year one as a Charger was uneventful, as former Head Coach Norv Turner barely utilized the rookie. Green accounted for only 56 yards on 4 receptions that season. 2013 brought a new group of coaches and a new offensive philosophy. As a result, Green played in all 16 games and totaled 376 yards on 17 receptions. Those modest gains may seem unnoteworthy, but Ladarius scored 3 touchdowns and had a fantastic average per catch of 22.1 yards! He established himself as a big play threat while playing behind a future Hall-of-Famer. His blocking has steadily improved, but it is far from being considered good yet. We all got a glimpse of the game changer that Green can be last season, and that has the fan base very excited. Green is not scheduled to become a free agent until 2016, so we can look forward to watching his continued development next fall.
Despite finishing the season on the injured reserve list, I still have high hopes for what John Phillips brings to the team. Unlike Gates and Green, Phillips is a solid run blocker that can be counted on to help seal the edge for outside running plays. General Manager Tom Telesco signed Phillips away from the Cowboys last year as added insurance in case of another injury-laden season for Gates. Though not a target in the passing game last year, accounting for just 30 yards on 4 catches, John’s value to the team seems secure. He is signed through 2015 and is scheduled to earn $1.1 million this season. I expect him to make be on the roster on opening day this season.
This young man is intriguing. Ryan was signed last spring by the Jaguars, but finished the year as a member of the Bolts’ practice squad. He has prototypical measurables for the position, standing 6’6″ tall and weighing 241 pounds. He has only average speed, running the 40 in 4.7 seconds, but his long arms and big hands make him an interesting receiving prospect. He demonstrated nice route running ability while at San Jose State and excelled at catching the ball in traffic. His run blocking must improve if he hopes to make the 53-man roster next fall. Still, remember the name next preseason…
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