There has been much deliberation on who will start as TE1 for the Chargers this season. It’s hard to tell, but honestly, I don’t really think it matters who “starts.” I truly believe the “go to” guy will be:
Hunter Henry - In his first year in the league, Hunter Henry made it really hard to prefer a future hall of fame tight end. I’m not sure about other fans, but I saw an ageing Gates as the inferior option to Henry, and that Rivers seemingly had to force the ball to Gates, whereas Hunter Henry was open and a good target most of the time. In just his first season, he tied for the league lead in TDs for a TE with 8 TDs, along with 36 receptions for 476 yards. He’s got good athleticism, incredible hands, and runs good routes. He will be a star in the league, and considering that Anthony Lynn doesn’t feel like he owes any player anything (see: Pulley starting at C), I could easily see Henry starting over Gates this season.
Antonio Gates - A future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, Gates had a “down year,” in his worst statistical season since 2012, with 548 yards and 7 TDs on 53 receptions. You could tell that Philip Rivers wanted to get Gates the all-time record for TDs for a TE, and he ended up tying with Tony Gonzalez with 111 TDs. Because of this, Rivers often forced the ball to Gates when other guys were open, and when the superior TE wasn’t on the field. The Chargers last season showed an inability to utilize both tight ends effectively in a game, practically leaning on Hunter Henry early in the season, and ignoring him for Gates later on. The pair never received for more than 100 yards in a game outside of week 5 against Oakland, when Gates received for 30 yards and TD on 4 receptions, and Henry received 3 balls for 79 yards and a TD. Even on that occasion, that’s hardly utilizing both guys, as Henry made the TD happen on YAC (59 yard reception), and not from sheer volume of passes thrown his way. Another point is that their best game (from a receptions standpoint) together came when they combined for 9 receptions in week 17. Come on, Whiz. You have two fantastic TE’s. How about you use them instead of weak-ass free-agent pickup Travis Benjamin, and drop-prone Tyrell Williams.
Jeff Cumberland - Mainly a blocking TE, he spent most of his career with the Jets before coming to San Diego on a 1 year contract. He tore his Achilles in just the 2nd preseason game last season and missed the rest of the season. It remains to be seen if he’ll make an impact this season.
Asante Cleveland - Spent some time on the active roster and practice squad last season after spending time with the 49ers and Patriots after going undrafted in 2014. He has all of 1 catch for 1 yard in his time in the NFL. Wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t make the roster.
Sean Culkin - An UDFA from Mizzou, Sean had 24 receptions for 282 yards in his final season in college. He has solid size at 6’5, 245, and runs okay at a 4.7 40, but will most likely have to fight for a spot on the practice squad. The Chargers will discover if he was just underutilized in college, or if he really got what he earned.
Sean McGrath - After going undrafted in the 2012 draft, he signed with the Seahawks and spent time on the active roster and practice squad. The Chiefs claimed him off waivers in 2013, and he had a solid season, with 26 receptions for 302 yards and 2 TDs. Apparently he lost his passion after that season and didn’t report for camp for the 2014 season, and decided to retire. In 2015, he signed with the Colts for a short period of time, before signing with the Chargers, and finished the season with 2 receptions for 25 yards. Honestly, my opinion of the guy is pretty low. If you’re making even the league minimum at over $400,000 a season (which he would have stayed on the active roster with the Chiefs, considering his solid season) , but you decide to walk away from it because it’s “not fun,” and decide to come back a year later, you don’t deserve to be in the league. That shows a lack of desire to play, and he wouldn’t be a guy I’d want on my team. Being terrible despite working hard is one thing, but giving up after having some success is pretty disgusting. Despite this, he does have a pretty great beard.
Just like the WRs, the Chargers are loaded on the top end with Gates and Henry, but after them, they’re just JAGs. My bet is that Cumberland makes the roster mainly as a blocking guy, because that’s the spot they have open.