TE Antonio Gates (Nick Laham/Getty)
The Chargers are blessed with extraordinary depth at tight end. Behind five-time Pro Bowler Antonio Gates are versatile H-backs Brandon Manumaleuna and Kris Wilson and promising youngster Scott Chandler. Nonetheless, the Chargers may not be content with the depth chart as-is.
The San Diego Chargers landed one of the biggest steals in the history of undrafted free agency when they signed Antonio Gates out of Kent State in 2003. Gates, who went undrafted because he played basketball instead of football in college, quickly developed into the premier tight end in the NFL.
Gates has been to the Pro Bowl in each of the last five seasons. During that span, he’s averaged more than 75 receptions, 935 yards and nine TDs per season. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, Gates became the fastest tight end in NFL history to exceed 50 touchdown catches, doing so in 87 career games.
The concern with Gates is the same as it is with LaDainian Tomlinson: Can he stay healthy in the playoffs? Gates has been severely limited during each of the last two postseasons, by a high ankle sprain last season and broken toe the year prior.
Nonetheless, Gates has won over the Chargers brass with his productivity and toughness. He is second in line for a contract extension behind QB Philip Rivers; Gates’ current deal expires after the 2010 season.
Behind Gates is Brandon Manumaleuna, a versatile H-back who can serve as a sixth offensive lineman, a fullback or a safety valve in the passing game.
Manumaleuna is one of the most vital role players on the team. He seals the edge in the running game; he serves as the personal protector in obvious passing situations; and he blocks for the kickoff return team.
The only problem with Manumaleuna is he lacks the athleticism to step in as a dynamic pass-catching option when Gates is out of the lineup.
Similar to Manumaleuna is Kris Wilson, who joined the Chargers last September after spending his first four years with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Wilson (6-foot-2, 251 pounds) is listed as 37 pounds lighter than Manumaleuna -- in reality it’s probably closer to 50 -- so their styles are clearly different. However, Wilson earns his keep in the same manner: blocking and special teams.
The Chargers were especially pleased with Wilson’s play on special teams late in the season, when he was active for the final five games including the playoffs. That should help him in his quest to remain on the active list in 2009.
The fourth tight end is Scott Chandler, a fourth-round pick from Iowa in 2007 who has yet to see action during the regular season. Chandler has excellent size (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) and soft hands; he may be the second-best pass-catching tight end on the roster.
The Chargers may not be done with the tight end position. San Diego scouts talked to a handful of tight ends at the Senior Bowl and had interviews with a couple more at the Combine. Drafting a tight end would bump either Chandler or Wilson (or both) off the roster, but it’s something the team may consider if it finds an excellent value.
As the roster is currently constructed, Gates is the only complete, proven tight end.
Prior to the 2008 draft, GM A.J. Smith came forward and stated the team would not draft a tight end. He has made no such proclamation this time around.
Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.