Positional Reviews

San Diego Chargers Positional Review: Tight End

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It’s strange to think the Chargers may be in need of a tight end.  Having Antonio Gates for the past 13 seasons, the Chargers haven’t needed to address the position in over a decade. However, that may be about to change. With Gates becoming an unrestricted free agent, the Bolts find themselves immersed in uncertainty at the tight end for the first time in a long time. Good thing they have plenty of options.

Positional Strength: F

Tight Ends Signed through 2016: Three

Sean McGrath: D

McGrath is a career practice squad player. Having spent parts of the past four seasons on (and off) the practice squads of the Seahawks, Chiefs, Colts and Chargers, McGrath has pretty much proved he will never be more than a fringe player.

McGrath’s only significant playing time came in 2013 with Kansas City, where he started nine games due to injuries to Travis Kelce and Anthony Fasano. McGrath ended up with respectable numbers, hauling in 23 receptions for 302 yards (11.6 ypc) and two touchdowns.

After getting some traction with the Chiefs, he failed to report to training camp in 2014 and retired. He ultimately pulled a Brett Favre and un-retired, but his dedication to the game is a question.

McGrath has some big-play potential and wears an impressive beard that could potentially replace Eric Weddle’s, but he is running out of time to solidify himself as more than camp body.

Asante Cleveland: F

Before signing with the Chargers, Cleveland got in a few  games with the Patriots, where managed one catch for 1 yard. That is the current extent of Cleveland’s production in the NFL.

An undrafted free agent out of Miami in 2014, Cleveland has spent time on the practice squads and active rosters for both the 49ers and Patriots before being signed by the Chargers on Dec. 28, 2015.

To date, Cleveland has only ever caught two touchdowns at either the collegiate or pro level, one in 2013 with the Hurricanes and one in the 2014 preseason with the 49ers.

An exclusive rights free agent, Cleveland will be back to compete with McGrath for a spot on the team in some capacity.

Tim Semisch: F-

Signed to a reserve/future contact at the end of the season, this first-year player out of Northern Illinois rounds out the tight ends currently signed through 2016.

Semisch spent some time with the Dolphins last season after making the team after a tryout. In his four-year collegiate career with the Huskies, Semisch caught 10 passes for 100 yards and three touchdowns. Color me unimpressed.

Standing at 6’8″, Semisch has impressive size but looked awkward and slow running routes while at SIU. He will probably be used primarily as a run blocker and special teamer in training camp, but unless he improves drastically, doesn’t stand a chance at making the roster.

Unrestricted Free Agents: Three

Antonio Gates: B

In 2015, Gates proved that, despite being 35 years old, he is still not quite done being a difference-maker. Even though the former Kent State basketball player missed five games through suspension and injury, he was still able to haul in 56 receptions for 630 yards and five touchdowns.

While last year was one of the worst years of his career statistically, Gates still ended the season with the Chargers’ third-most receptions and receiving yards, and second-most touchdowns. Also, Gates was Pro Football Focus’ fifth-ranked tight end with a solid 82.5 overall player rating and an impressive 88.6 receiving grade.

Still, Gates’ age is starting to show around the edges, especially when it comes to consistency. Coming off of his suspension, Gates was very productive in his first two games back, catching 18 receptions for 187 yards and two touchdowns. However, his production declined gradually through the season.

Gates never broke 100 yards in a game and only caught touchdowns in three games. In the last two games of the season against Oakland and Denver, Gates only caught five passes for 45 yards and a touchdown.

While Gates’ slip in production down the stretch is likely a result of the added coverage he received due to the depleted receiving core, it’s still a little bit concerning, especially considering he will be 36 in June.

Still, Gates deserves a chance to retire in the powder blues and should absolutely be re-signed this offseason.

Ladarius Green: C+

At 6’6″ and running a 4.4 40, Green has all the physical talent to become an unstoppable tight end. However, after four years with the Chargers he has yet to develop into the receiving threat everyone believes he can be.

Prior to this season, limited snaps could have been blamed for Green’s lack of production, but the former Louisiana-Lafayette star had plenty of opportunities in 2015 to seize the starting tight end role from Gates and failed to do so.

Green, who ended the season with 37 receptions, 429 yards and four touchdowns, looked absolutely amazing at times. Unfortunately for the Bolts, those times just didn’t come often enough.

After catching 26 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns through the first seven weeks, Green’s production fell completely off the map. Over the last nine games, Green averaged just over one catch per game and added just 125 yards to his season total.

Entering the 2016 offseason as an unrestricted free agent, Green represents a huge gamble for the front office. At only 25 years old, Green still has the time and physical potential to develop into a great tight end. At the same time, Green’s lack of production and injury history (especially with concussions) makes him an incredibly risky long-term signing. I would hate it if Green went on to become a great tight end somewhere else, but after his 2015 play, I don’t think he is worth the risk.

John Phillips: D

Phillips has never been much of factor in the Chargers’ offense. Despite Gates and Green both missing time this season, he still only appeared on 19.9 percent of the offense’s snaps, according to Football Outsiders.

Phillips did manage to haul in 10 receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown. Still, considering he is known primarily as a blocking tight end, he was not an especially good one.

PFF graded Phillips’ run blocking in the 40s or below in every game in the regular season, and the Virginia product ranked below both Gates and Green (not known as blockers) in that category. Phillips did grade higher as a pass blocker, ending the year with a 63.9, but that still isn’t much to write home about.

Considering Phillips brings practically nothing as a receiver and was not an especially good blocker, it’s probably best to move on.

Free Agent Targets

Outside of Gates and Green, the 2016 free agent class does not boast too many great options. Other than a few washed-up superstars (Vernon Davis) and veteran role players, the field is largely barren. The Chargers would probably do best to focus on their own free agents or look to the draft. However, there are a few options that could add some depth to the position.

Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts

We know how much Tom Telesco loves his ex-Colts, and considering the Chargers’ general manager was part of the front office that drafted Allen in the third round in 2012, it would not be surprising if the Chargers showed some interest.

Allen has been a solid, if not spectacular, contributor for Colts over the past four years, amassing 91 receptions for 1,045 yards and 13 touchdowns despite missing practically all of the 2013 season.

That being said, Allen had a terrible season in 2015. Prior to being placed on injured-reserve for a calf injury heading into Week 17, the former Clemson Tiger only caught 16 passes for 109 yards and one touchdown. Allen, considered to be a versatile tight end, ended the season with poor PFF grades in receiving (56.8), run blocking (33.1) and pass blocking (61.0).

Looking at Allen’s 2015 production, Green and even Phillips would almost be preferable options. However, according to an article by Fox Sports, Allen believes he was not utilized properly by the Colts last year. While this does not really account for such an incredible drop in production, considering the turmoil the Colts faced all season, perhaps a change of scenery would get Allen back on track.

While Allen would likely not be able to replace Gates as the starter, he provides good depth and his skills as both a receiver and blocker could help the Chargers run more two-tight end sets. Also, he could potentially come at a discounted price based on last year’s production.

The Chargers could also target teammate Coby Fleener, who is also set to become a free agent and may not be re-signed. Fleener brings more as a receiver than Allen and has been more consistent over his career, but will likely be more expensive.

Zach Miller, Chicago Bears

While not a superstar by any means, Miller proved his receiving abilities to the Chargers first-hand with that miraculous one-handed touchdown catch in Week 9 to beat the Bolts, 22-19.

Miller, who replaced the injured Martellus Bennett as Chicago’s starter, had a solid season in his first year back from injury. He racked up 34 receptions, 439 yards and five touchdowns under offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who served under Mike McCoy as Denver’s quarterbacks coach in 2012.

In all likelihood, Miller will not be available for the Chargers as Da Bears could decide to move on from Bennett and re-sign Miller instead, or Miller could follow Gase and take his talents to Miami. However, if Miller does become available, the Bolts should take a long look at him as another complimentary tight end.

Craig Stevens, Tennessee Titans

Stevens has spent the past eight years as a Titan but could be looking for a new home as he heads into free agency.

While he has never been much of a receiver, Stevens does have qualities that should appeal to the Chargers, specifically his ability to block.

Stevens ended last season with an impressive 86.8 run blocking grade, making him PFF’s best run-blocking tight end. Additionally, Stevens has experience working with Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who spent part of the past two seasons as the Titans’ head coach.

Draft Targets

While it would be incredibly foolish for the Chargers to spend a high pick on a tight end with so many other holes on the roster, Telesco was part of the front office that spent both a second- and third-round pick on tight ends after Indy went 2-14, so there is some precedent. If Telesco does draft a tight end, he will be the first since Green in 2012.

TE Hunter Henry, Arkansas

Projected to be a first- or second-round pick, Arkansas junior Hunter Henry is considered to be the top tight end prospect in the 2016 draft class.

Henry was a major receiving threat for the Razorbacks last season, posting 51 receptions for 739 yards and three touchdowns. His best game came against Mississippi State, were he exploded for 129 yards and two touchdowns in a 51-50 loss.

It’s unlikely Henry would fall to the Chargers in the second round, but if he is available, the Bolts should consider taking the talented junior with the No. 35 overall pick.

TE Bryce Williams, East Carolina

Williams looks the part of an NFL tight end and is predicted to be a third- or fourth-round pick. Last year, Williams caught 58 passes for 588 yards and four touchdowns.

Williams displayed good speed and ran fluid routes in college, and was able to find soft spots in zone defenses with ease.

On the other hand, Williams does not appear to be a strong blocker and never broke 100 yards receiving in any game last season.

While Williams’ receiving skills are impressive, his blocking abilities leave much to be desired. Still, if Williams is available in the fourth round, the Chargers shouldn’t hesitate to take him.

About Trenton Villanueva

A San Diego native, Trenton Villanueva graduated from San Diego State University with a bachelor's degree in Journalism and a minor in the hydraulic principles of the keg. Prior to writing for SDBR, he covered sports news for FanSided and wrote music reviews for the San Diego State Daily Aztec.

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