How Antonio Gates changed the tight end position

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Antonio Gates has not called it a career yet.

The 37-year-old tight end wants to play. However, the Los Angeles Chargers do not plan to bring Gates back, so it’s appropriate to examine the impact he’s had in 15 seasons with the Bolts.

Gates' numbers already point to him being one of the best tight ends to play the game.

“There’s nothing left for him to prove,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers told the team’s website. “He did it all. He was a championship player. On the outside, people will remember him for the catches and yards, but he was so much more than that to me. Just the day-to-day interactions that we had, and the fun we had, I couldn’t be more thankful.”

A highly recruited basketball player out of Detroit Central High, Gates averaged 30 points a game in leading his team to a state title. He initially accepted a football scholarship from Michigan State, then led by Alabama football coach Nick Saban.

However, when Saban would not allow Gates to play both football and basketball, he left, bouncing around to Eastern Michigan and two junior colleges before landing at Kent State, where he played basketball and eventually led the Golden Eagles to the Elite Eight in 2002. Gates had his No. 44 jersey retired by the school and was inducted into the Mid-American Conference’s Hall of Fame.

After college, Gates had a tough decision to make -- chase his dream of playing in the NBA as a 6-foot-4 swingman or pursue football, with several teams interested in his ability as an athlete.

Gates chose football, signing with the Chargers as an undrafted rookie in 2003, and the rest is history.

“What I really want to emphasize is this man didn’t even play college football,” former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. “So that’s what really makes me sit back in awe. A guy that didn’t play any college football and took four years off -- which are probably the four most important years in developing as a player going into a league -- and then he still ends up shattering records and is probably going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

“I mean, can you imagine if he had those other four years to learn a little more about [foot]ball? I can’t imagine how many more records he would have broken.”

Gates spawned a new generation of tight ends with his unique skill set. Scouts started to look for players with basketball backgrounds and found Jimmy Graham, Jordan Cameron and Darren Fells.

Here are some of Gates’ numbers of note:

  • Gates is the Chargers' franchise leader in receptions (927), receiving yards (11,508) and touchdowns (114).

  • Gates’ 114 receiving touchdowns is the most by a tight end in NFL history.

  • Gates posted 100-plus receiving yards in 21 games throughout his career, one of just seven tight ends in league history with 20-plus games of at least 100 yards receiving.

  • Gates is the 22nd player in NFL history to haul in 900 passes. His 927 receptions rank No. 20 all-time and No. 3 among tight ends. Gates has posted 10-plus receptions in four games, one of 11 tight ends in league history with at least four 10-catch games.

  • Gates and Rivers have connected on 87 touchdown passes during their time with the Chargers, the most in league history for a quarterback-tight end tandem.

While his numbers with the Chargers are historic and should put him in the Hall of Fame, what made Gates unique was his ability to create separation in the middle of the field and the red zone.

Gates developed his precise body control on the hardwood floor as a smallish, wide-bodied, low-post basketball player at Kent State.

“The exact same way I played tight end is the exact same way I play basketball,” Gates said. “It’s funny because I don’t see it any differently. If a linebacker’s got me, I use my quickness to beat him. If a DB’s got me, I try to use my size to position him. They can’t figure out what player to put on me because of my ability to see and use those angles.

“They have a hard time saying, ‘This is the guy for him.’”

Throughout his career, Gates was a monster in the red zone and on third down. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 90 of Gates’ 114 career touchdowns came in the red zone -- second most all-time and most of any player since he entered the league in 2003.

“What a significant weapon he was,” longtime Chargers center Nick Hardwick said. “Down in the red zone and on third down, Antonio was so clutch, so many times for so many years. It was unbelievable having him, and he was a big confidence boost for us going into games.”

Gates also converted 235 of his 275 third-down catches into first downs, the second most among all players since he entered the league -- only Anquan Boldin (254) had more over that time period, per ESPN Stats & Information.

“Even if you were all over him in terms of blanket coverage, he has a great reach and a great feel for a post-up move -- sitting low with his power with the body control to push off,” Tatupu said. “And he would catch everything with one hand anyway. So he was always open, man.”

Here’s a grab by Gates against the Seahawks in a 2010 matchup that Tatupu’s talking about.

“Guys like him and Tony Gonzalez with that basketball background, it was almost like basketball when guys are sitting low and they get that beautiful lob pass from the point guard, that’s very much what the feeling was playing defense against those guys,” Tatupu said. “They didn’t need two yards of separation to be declared open after watching these guys play.”

What also made Gates unique was his ability to line up outside on the perimeter of the defense and still be effective.

Gates showed he could do it against one of the best defenses in the NFL -- the Seahawks -- in a three-touchdown performance in 2014.

“He beat Kam Chancellor,” ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen said. “Kam Chancellor is pretty good. He beat those Seattle linebackers, and those guys are pretty athletic. That’s the best defense in the NFL. He didn’t beat them running past people.

“If you look at the tape and how he got open over the top in the red zone, it was all at the line of scrimmage.”