Will Gates be Open when Camp Begins?

Few Chargers will be watched more closely in the coming days than Antonio Gates.

The Chargers' standout tight end has been nursing a foot injury this offseason. It prevented him from participating in minicamp and derailed much of his offseason conditioning.

The good news for the Chargers is Gates' aliment is on the opposite foot that has caused him trouble in the past. Last year his injuries -- he's also been slowed by a bum ankle and toe -- were diminished and he had produced one of the best seasons of his stellar career. Gates had a team-high 79 receptions, and his career-best 1,157 receiving yards and eight touchdowns were second among Chargers only to wide receiver Vincent Jackson.

But will the perennial Pro Bowler be good to go when the veterans report on July 29?

The early indications were he would be fit. Still, there's a degree of mystery lingering over his availability, which has many taking and wait-and-see stance.

Gates, if his foot is right, is on the verge on accomplishing some big things this season as the Chargers go for their fifth straight AFC West title.

He needs but 23 receptions to reach 500 in his career as he aims for his seventh Pro Bowl selection.

But will the Pro Bowl aspirations be denied?

It will also be interesting to gauge how much Jackson's absence will hamper Gates. Jackson, who is locked in a nasty contract dispute with the Chargers, has insisted he won't report until well into the season.

If so, could Gates find defenses concentrating on him more by not worrying about the acrobatic Jackson stretching the field? If Jackson's replacement -- Malcom Floyd -- doesn't pose as big of a threat, might defenses squeeze Gates on the underneath stuff?

Maybe, but knowing Gates penchant for getting open and using his body to shield defenders from the football, he should be just fine.

But first, he must prove he is healthy. That's why so many will be watching his every move when the players report to training camp.

CAMP CALENDAR: July 25: Rookies and select veterans report; July 26: First practice; July 29: Balance of veterans report; July 30: First full-squad practice; Aug. 4: Practice session at Qualcomm Stadium; Aug. 15: Players off. Aug. 20: Walk-through at Marines Corps Air Station Miramar; Aug. 23: Final training camp practice.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Antonio Gates isn't the team's only tight end looking for a big year. Randy McMichael, who came over from the woeful Rams, is fired up, too. "I feel like I've been in a dormant state for three years (and) my time has finally come."

--Despite needing a No. 1 receiver, the Chargers have given no indication that they are interested in free-agent Terrell Owens.

--A recent positive report on the financial windfall the City of San Diego has reaped by helping fund the Padres' Petco Park could help the Chargers in their cause to build a stadium adjacent to the baseball stadium.

--Since leaving Chicago for the Chargers, CB Nathan Vasher has been energized.

"There's nothing like a fresh start," Vasher said. "I feel like I'm getting an opportunity here."

--OLB Shawne Merriman and FS Eric Weddle were among the Chargers enjoying the recent opening day at Del Mar Race Track. It offered one of the last respites before camp starts next week.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We felt he was the most complete back in the draft and we're going to give him an opportunity to be a factor right away." -- Coach Norv Turner when asked how quickly top pick Ryan Mathews could contribute this season.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

It's the news before camp, during camp, and likely well into the season: how will the Chargers fare without two key players?

Left tackle Marcus McNeill and wide receiver Vincent Jackson are taking a hard-line stance -- as is the club -- regarding their 2010 season. Both players were seeking long-term deals, and when those weren't presented, they indicated they could sit out until the season's final six weeks.

While there are other position battles in what should be one of the most spirited camps in years, the two biggest holes are the gaps left vacate by McNeill and Jackson.



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