Two days ago on June 18th, San Diego Chargers longtime tight end Antonio Gates turned 33 years of age. While the threshold of 30 years has been the general benchmark for running backs to signal their decline, the tight end position has bucked this trend. One of Gates’ contemporaries, Tony Gonzalez, even decided to return for one more year in 2013 with the Atlanta Falcons at the age of 37. Clearly the championship window is closing on two of the game’s most impressive of all-time at their respective position.
One the Chargers’ side of things, going from an undrafted free agent to a future Hall of Famer is one heck of an accomplishment. Gates has to be proud of the way his career has player out even though he has been hampered by injuries over the past few seasons. It’s extremely unlikely that the former Kent State hoopster can rekindle the magic from back in his first few NFL seasons where he routinely eclipsed the 70-catch mark, but given the production that Gonzalez has continued to have in Atlanta, it isn’t out of the question.
Obviously Gates’ numbers pale in comparison to the great Gonzalez, but he has always been more of a field-stretching player than the first basketball player turned tight end. His 13.0 average yards per catch is a full yard and a half ahead of Gonzalez’s 11.5. The past four years in Atlanta have even seen those numbers decline further as despite continuing to put up monster reception numbers, Gonzalez only averages 10.2 yards per catch over that time span.
It may be time for Gates to transition into that more intermediate target in the new Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt offense with the Chargers this season. His speed and athleticism have undeniably diminished a bit over his decade in the league, and now that Norv Turner’s insatiable desire to throw the deep ball is gone, that underneath game may be a promising alternative for quarterback Philip Rivers and his veteran tight end.
Last season was Gates’ worst statistically since his rookie campaign. Despite playing in every game but one, Gates still didn’t get to 50 receptions which was his previous lowest total aside from his rookie season during his injury-plagued 2010 where he only played in 10 games.
That leads to the obvious question of who will take over for Gates when he is ready to call it a career. Last year’s fourth round draft choice Ladarius Green should see more of the field in 2013 which will also help Gates to stay fresh. Hopefully the wily veteran can impart some of his wisdom on the youngster as well to pave the way for his success during the coming seasons in San Diego.