2014 Offseason Position Preview: QB | TE
Going into 2014, it appears that the tight end position will continue to be a strength of Chargers football for years to come.
|Player||Age*||Signed Through||2014 Cap Number||Cap Savings|
* - Age as of September 1, 2014
You may notice something about this chart: Ladarius Green is listed above Antonio Gates. This is for a few reasons:
- Ladarius Green is a better tight end than Antonio Gates. He's a larger target, a much better blocker, and there's no comparison in current athleticism.
- The coaching staff has started to realize point #1, as his 80 playoff snaps are just shy of Antonio's 87. Expect Ladarius Green's snap count to further rise in 2014, especially seeing as Green was trusted in the run game down-the-stretch, which also happened to be when the Chargers excelled in that department. John Phillips' injury only solidifies the likelihood that Green stays on the field more in 2014.
- Ladarius Green's presence on the roster is safer than Gates's. I'll go into this in more depth below, but Green is a better bet to start 2014 a Charger.
If you don't believe it coming from my fingers, maybe you'll believe Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco's words on Ladarius Green:
Ladarius does give us some of that big play ability. With that long stride, it's deceiving how fast he really is. He can run away from defensive backs and has made some big plays for us this year. I know he had that drop in the Denver game and I don't remember having another drop all year. He had a good year for us and he is coming along as a blocker. He's not the biggest body in the world, but he gets in there and fights with people. He definitely has a role moving forward.
In short: there's a reason one of Bolts From The Blue's main mantras in 2013 was LAMOARIUS. I'll go out on a limb and declare 2014 as "two-thousand MOARteen" and it's not even February.
Before I researched this article, I thought there was a reasonable chance that Antonio Gates could be cut prior to the 2014 season. His play is certainly in decline — actually, Pro Football Focus's ratings show a steep drop off in performance after 2010, with consistently average play since then — and he's expensive. Both of those are qualities that scream "salary cap casualty," but I don't believe he'll be cut in 2014 after further review.
Cutting Gates only saves $2.6 million in 2014, while cutting him prior to the 2015 season would save $5.9 million against the cap. It won't be possible to replace Gates's production as a pass-catcher at $2.6 million in free agency, and I don't think the drop off in production is worth the freed cap space, either.
Besides, why not give Ladarius Green a little leeway in his transition to full–time tight end? At the very least, targets given to Antonio Gates help deflate Green's dollar value on a prospective extension. Green is only signed through 2015, so artificially reducing Green's volume statistics could actually work in the Chargers favor in the not–so–distant future.
After suffering a season–ending right knee injury which brought a "disappointing season to a disappointing end" for John Phillips, one might think he's a sure–fire cut heading into 2014. However, if the Chargers cut John Phillips, they won't see any cap benefit, as his replacement — and no, the Chargers won't carry just two tight ends — would count just as much against the cap as the team stands to gain by cutting Phillips.
In other words, Phillips will only be cut in three scenarios: his health dictates they must find a replacement, they find a player in free agency whose excess contract value exceeds Phillips dead cap amount should he be cut, or the Chargers draft a third tight end (which seems dependent upon the first two scenarios).
Byrne's place on the roster is tenuous, at best. None of his salary is guaranteed, nor does it count against the cap, so really, really don't go buying his jersey. He won't be back in 2014, except as a possible camp body or emergency blocking tight end.
First things first: the Chargers will not be signing Jimmy Graham. In fact, if I were betting on it, I'd bet that the Chargers won't sign any tight end in free agency.
However, as discussed above, the Chargers could cut John Phillips and use a portion of that towards signing a different blocking tight end, knowing that you're likely to cut Antonio Gates prior to 2015 anyway. In other words, signing a new tight end really only affects 2014's cap.
One name to keep an eye on in that regard: Ben Hartsock. The blocking tight end in Carolina posted the best run block figure in the NFL at tight end in 2013, more than doubling second place, and he did it in less than a third of the number of snaps that Antonio Gates got in 2013. Remember, Pro Football Focus numbers are counting statistics, making that accomplishment even more impressive.
Hartsock, an unrestricted free agent, was also drafted by the Indianapolis Colts when Tom Telesco was the Director of Pro Scouting back in 2004.
With a Hall of Fame tight end who can still do this …
… and one of the most talented, emerging tight ends in all of football, I don't foresee the Chargers spending one of their first few picks on a tight end. It wouldn't be the best use of resources given the Chargers desire to compete in 2014 after a promising 2013 playoff run.
That isn't to say that the new regime doesn't believe in drafting tight ends early in principal, as Telesco's Colts drafted many tight ends on the colloquial first day: Dallas Clark in the first in 2003, the aforementioned Ben Hartsock in the third in 2004, and both Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in 2012. In addition to those guys, the Colts also selected Jacob Tamme, Tom Santi, and Brody Eldridge in later rounds.
Fans shouldn't expect the Chargers to be signing or drafting a tight end in 2014, but, if they do, it should come in the form of a blocking tight end to replace Phillips or late in the draft.
Many of us are aware of the Chargers' perceived cap issues, but both Gates and Phillips are more-likely-than-not returning in 2014. In 2015, however, there is a realistic chance that Antonio Gates is a cap casualty, depending on how well Ladarius Green performs in 2014.
At his recent season-recap press conference, Tom Telesco said he was "really happy with the tight end group." It's hard not to be. The Chargers tight end crop is one of the team's strengths.