Chargers Review: TE

Chargers TE Gates delivers

When was the last time there was a real bidding war on an undrafted free agent? It does not happen often. After the 2003 NFL Draft, two teams, the San Diego Chargers and Cleveland Browns got into it over a player that hasn't played football in four years. Most undrafted free agents get little in the terms of actual money or roster bonuses, but not Antonio Gates. And this year he proved he was a bargain.

The San Diego Chargers were in a bidding war for the services of Antonio Gates with the Cleveland Browns and secured him by giving up a guaranteed two years at $130,000 per season, with a $100,000 roster bonus. Making the squad out of training camp Gates earned even more, including a starting job.

Gates became the starter midway through the season and never looked back. Surprisingly good as a blocker, Gates elevated his game as a primary weapon on the field. By the end of the season he was being looked at as the number two outlet behind LaDainian Tomlinson.

"Antonio Gates, who has really done a terrific job, is arguably the biggest surprise that we have had," Marty Schottenheimer said. "But he has been thrust into the role because of injuries to other players. Sometimes that becomes a positive side of some injuries, where young players get an opportunity and all of a sudden they step into the breech and they give you the realization that we have something new that is pretty good."

Because of injuries, inconsistencies and lack of production, it was Gates that has become a household name in San Diego. Likened to Tony Gonzalez in terms of athleticism, he did not disappoint. Eighteen of his 24 catches came while he was in motion, giving him favorable matchups across the field.

In the last three games of the season, Gates caught 14 passes, including a five reception 117-yard performance against Green Bay. It was the kind of performance they had hoped for from any of their tight ends when they entered the season.

Gates ended up third on the team with 24 catches and 389 yards. His ability to stretch the defense was a revelation on a team that lacked such a player (evidenced by his 24 receptions being third on the squad). When he caught the ball, he also was tough to bring down. Gates added 135 yards after the catch, a nice showing from the rook.

Gates must work on his release at the line of scrimmage in the red zone. Extremely effective as the season wore on running intermediate routes, Gates had trouble creating the separation needed around the goal line. Inside the ten, where tight ends make their living, Gates had just one reception.

Consider the starting spot locked up with Gates in the future. His progress, after not playing football in year, leaves little doubt anyone can do or say something to unseat him. His upside is still tremendous.

Justin Peelle is a bit of an enigma. He has the size to dominate and does in the blocking game. He is the best blocking tight end the team has, but he has failed to make his presence felt in the passing game since his arrival.

It isn't that he has a hard time making the catches. Quite the contrary, he has shown nice hands, but his route running and speed are the real problems. Hurting his progress even further is the tendencies to keep him in the max protect package and not allowing him to run routes at all.

Peelle ended the season with 16 receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown.

Josh Norman had a golden opportunity to snare the starting tight end job early in the season with Stephen Alexander hurt. A few head shakes later, Norman was in the doghouse. The kid has the talent to create huge mismatches in coverage, runs solid if unspectacular routes, but has terrible hands. QBs hit him in the numbers and his lack of concentration resulted in too many drops, thus to the doghouse he went.

Norman has been injury-prone, hindering his opportunities further. Coaches simply lost confidence Norman and when Gates stepped up, there was no need to look in the backyard.

Norman ended the six catches for 72 yards with one touchdown. His chances of returning appear to be slim. The team can ill afford to keep four tight ends on the roster as they did entering 2003 and Norman did not separate himself from the pack.

Stephen Alexander was thrown the ball twice ALL year, including training camp, and both times he came down injured. Before the season started, Alexander had groin surgery. He was expected to only be out a few weeks and it turned into a season long episode of fragility.

He caught no passes on the season and was wasted on the inactive list instead of being put on injured reserve early in the season. It was clear to almost everyone, except the Chargers staff, that he would not return to the field.

The season long episode amounted to collected paychecks and no dividends. The Alexander market simply crashed. Bringing him back would be a public relations nightmare. Fans are tired of his injuries, tired of his contract and tired of the loyalty Marty will show him, but wouldn't show Rodney Harrison.

Will he stay? He is a talented receiver, when healthy, and that could sway the coaching staff enough to keep him around for a last hurrah. The emergence of Gates threatens that, but until the Chargers get another receiver, Alexander may be the best there is.

Up next: Offensive Tackles

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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