Antonio Gates is heading into the Pro Football Hall of Fame shortly after he decides to retire and the only thing that might keep his number from being retired with the Los Angeles Chargers is that there aren’t a ton of available numbers for Tight Ends and Wide Receivers (which is, most likely, the reason the team never retired #80 for Kellen Winslow Sr.).
That being said, Gates is no longer in his prime. As a matter of fact, he’s been a different player since missing time in back-to-back seasons with lower-leg injuries...
Average Season Before 2012: 15 games, 99 targets, 66 recs, 865 rec yds (13.1 yards per rec, 59.0 yards per game), 8 TDs
Average Season After 2011: 14 games, 94 targets, 61 recs, 682 rec yds (11.2 yards per rec, 47.3 yards per game), 7 TDs
Gates also made the Pro Bowl 8 of the first 9 years he was in the league, and was First Team All-Pro three times between 2004-2006.
In addition, his 2014 was so unreasonably good that it skews the numbers for “after 2011” quite a bit. The two years before and the two years after are probably closer to what the team should be expecting this season....
The good news is, as Gates is declining, Tom Telesco drafted Hunter Henry. All Henry did in his first season with the Chargers was finish the season with a high catch rate, more yards per reception, and more touchdowns than Gates despite getting about half as many targets as a receiver.
As a matter of fact, let’s break this down and make up a stat: Per-target.
Gates’ Per Target (2016): 0.56 rec, 5.89 yards, 0.07 TD, 0.01 turnover
Henry’s Per Target (2016): 0.67 rec, 9.01 yards, 0.15 TD, 0.01 turnover
Obviously, from an efficiency standpoint, Henry was the better player last season. Yes, there are arguments to be made about how many times Henry was the #1 TE on the field and how much he was helped by Gates, but I don’t have stats to show me how often they were on the field together and how much they were separate, so we’re ignoring that for now.
This might be the biggest concern for me: When Antonio Gates is on the field, defenses know what’s coming.
We’ve known for a long time that Gates is not a great blocker, and is sometimes a big detriment as a blocker, but the Chargers understand that too and they’re showing their hand when he’s out there....
Gates’ Snaps (2016):
415 Pass (Receiver)
145 Run (Blocker)
25 Pass (Blocker)
More than 70% of the time that Gates is on the field, you can count on it to be a passing play in which he is the receiver. There’s a less than 25% chance of a running play, at all. What’s keeping the defense honest?
Henry’s Snaps (2016):
254 Pass (Receiver)
281 Run (Blocker)
39 Pass (Blocker)
That’s perfection. Half the time Henry is on the field the team is running, and half the time they’re passing. When they’re passing, there’s a more than 10% chance that he’s only in as an additional blocker for Rivers. This is why defenses were more confused against Henry last season than they were against Gates. They didn’t know what was coming.
This isn’t to say that Henry needs to steal a large chunk of Gates’ snaps away, but I do think that Gates probably isn’t a Tight End anymore. He should probably play off the line as a slot WR and only on obvious passing downs (3rd down can remain his bread and butter). I’d hope he finishes the upcoming season with less than 400 snaps on the field and less than 55 targets from Philip Rivers.
This isn’t a shocking thing to say, we’ve been saying versions of it for a long time, but Antonio Gates is still a pretty great possession receiver. He’s just not a Tight End, not when Hunter Henry is available to take those snaps and do a better job of not showing the team’s hand before the snap of the ball.
If you’re looking for reasons that the Chargers’ running game improved in 2016, look at Henry before you look at Derek Watt. If you’re trying to figure out why Rivers continues to get crushed by opposing pass rushers, maybe look at Antonio Gates before you blame some of the offensive linemen. If the Chargers are trying to win games by getting up early and playing smash mouth football, they need to promote Hunter Henry and reduce Antonio Gates’ role in the offense.