Veteran tight end Antonio Gates indicated he’d like to play for another year at the end of the 2017 campaign, but whether that will be for the Los Angeles Chargers for the upcoming season or another team remains to be seen.
Gates’ replacement Hunter Henry was productive but finished the year on the injured reserve with a lacerated kidney. The Chargers also have to replace tight ends coach John McNulty, who took a job as the offensive coordinator at Rutgers.
Lock: Hunter Henry
On the bubble: Sean Culkin
Free agents: Antonio Gates, Sean McGrath, Jeff Cumberland, Asante Cleveland
The good: Henry finished with 45 receptions for 579 receiving yards and four scores. The Chargers were 7-1 in 2017 in games Henry was targeted at least five times. Gates finished the year strong with Henry out the last two games, totaling 10 catches for 127 receiving yards and a touchdown in wins over the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders. McGrath did a solid job as the Chargers’ blocking tight end and also played on special teams. McGrath served as the Bolts’ backup long snapper.
The bad: According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chargers averaged just 3.2 yards per carry when using two tight-end sets, No. 27 in the NFL. Gates had his least productive season in the NFL since his rookie year in 2003, totaling 30 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns. The Chargers failed to get Henry involved in the offense early in the year. The Arkansas product was not targeted in two of the first four games as the Chargers started the season 0-4.
The money: Gates, Cumberland and Cleveland are unrestricted free agents, while McGrath is a restricted free agent. Henry is scheduled to make about $1 million in the third year of his rookie deal, while Culkin will make $555,000 in the second year of his rookie contract.
Draft priority: The overall talent at this position is solid, of course led by Henry. Culkin is a good, developmental pass-catching tight end who offers versatility because of his ability to play fullback. The Chargers should bring back Gates at the right price, perhaps a two-year deal worth $6 million with the 2018 salary guaranteed.
Hold off on the retirement party for Antonio Gates.
The 37-year-old just completed his 15th NFL season, but Gates says he still has gas in the tank and wishes to play in 2018.
“For the last couple months, I was kind of on the border, trying to figure out what I can do physically,” Gates said. “And so it’s just going out there, trying to figure out what I can do, and can I still play?
“Sometimes you need that reinforcement because as you get up in age, you need to go out and physically do it because it helps you mentally. I have a little saying that I say to my kids: ‘I’ve still got a little juice.’ And that’s something I’ve been saying to my kids when I go home. It’s just fun to be able to go out, make plays and help win football games.”
With Hunter Henry out the past two games because of a lacerated kidney, Gates totaled 10 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown in victories over the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders.
“He’s a pro,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “He shows up every day. He does his job. He’s a Hall of Famer for a reason: He’s highly productive.”
Gates, 37, will be an unrestricted free agent in 2018, but he indicated that the Chargers have something special building and he’d like to be a part of it.
“He can certainly still do it,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “He was very effective the last few weeks where we needed him in a bigger role because of Hunter being down.”
However, Gates had his least productive season in the NFL since his rookie year in 2003, totaling 30 catches for 316 yards and three touchdowns.
If 2017 is his final season, Gates will finish as the all-time leader in receiving touchdowns by an NFL tight end, with 114. Gates and Rivers have connected on 87 touchdown passes during their time with the Chargers, second for a pair in league history.
Gates said he’ll take some time during the offseason to reflect before making a final decision.
“Right now it’s just getting away from the game of football, relaxing and spending time with the family,” Gates said. “And then when that time comes around, we’ll start having the necessary dialogue that’s appropriate for both parties.
“I think if they’re serious about winning the Super Bowl … and that’s my goal, no matter what team it is.”