Hunter Henry might very well be the NFL’s best young tight end, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound mismatch for both linebackers and defensive backs. When he gets the ball, good things happened — as evidenced by the Chargers’ 7-1 record in 2017 when Henry saw at least five targets.
When he didn’t? The Chargers went 0-6 before a lacerated kidney ended Henry’s season in Week 15.
Much of that inconsistency is rooted in the nature of the Chargers offense, which spreads its aerial workload across the field. Star receiver Keenan Allen seized an enormous role with 159 targets, but four other players drew between 52 and 69 looks — including both Henry and fellow tight end Antonio Gates, whose game took a noticeable step back at 37 years old.
Here’s a look back at the position group’s performance, and what might lie ahead in 2018:
2017 STARTERS: Hunter Henry (45 receptions, 579 yards, 4 touchdowns), Antonio Gates (30 catches, 316 yards, 3 touchdowns).
RESERVES: Sean McGrath (4 catches, 46 yards, 0 touchdowns), Jeff Cumberland (2 receptions, 2 yards, 0 touchdowns), Sean Culkin (1 appearance), Asante Cleveland (injured reserve).
PENDING FREE AGENTS: Antonio Gates, Jeff Cumberland, Sean McGrath (restricted), Asante Cleveland (restricted).
According to Pro Football Focus, Henry was the third-best tight end in the NFL in 2017 — and the league’s 67th-best player at any position. Still, nine tight ends had more yards receiving, a diverse list that includes both rookie Evan Engram and 34-year-old veteran Vernon Davis. Because Henry’s role changed from week to week, the Arkansas product was just as likely to end a game with two catches as he was with seven.
Asked often about those ups and downs, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt usually deferred to the same answer: The Chargers would take what the defense offered. While that philosophy makes sense, the 2018 playbook should feature more creative ways to get the 2016 second-round pick more involved.
Perhaps more concerning was the decline of Gates, who holds the record for career touchdown catches by a tight end. He posted a career-low 316 receiving yards, and took snaps and routes that should have gone to Henry during the first month of the season. Gates looked refreshed in the two games after Henry’s season ending injury — catching 10 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown — but his NFL future is now tied to what he brings as a locker-room mentor. GRADE: B
Henry should solidify the top of depth chart for years, but no one else in the position group is a lock to return in 2018. And given the the Chargers’ frequent use of multiple tight ends, they’ll have important roster decisions to make this spring. The biggest question mark is, of course, Gates — the future Hall of Famer who has never played for another team.
Gates did not sound ready to retire after the 2018 regular-season finale, and after 15 seasons, it would feel strange to see him in another team’s uniform. The veteran could still offer value to the Chargers, even with his 38th birthday looming in June. Whether or not he returns is likely contingent on his salary demands; Gates earned $4.5 million in base salary last year, eighth-most among NFL tight ends. The Chargers would be unwise to tie up significant cap space on someone in the twilight of his career. LEVEL OF NEED: MEDIUM
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