COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — Tight end Antonio Gates will not return to the Los Angeles Chargers, ending the 15-year tenure of the most prolific pass-catcher in franchise history.
Chargers general manager Tom Telesco confirmed the team’s decision Friday night after the second day of the NFL draft.
The Chargers had waited to make any announcement on Gates’ future because they weren’t sure whether he intended to attempt to join another team for a 16th NFL season this fall. Gates has spent his entire career with the Chargers, who signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2003.
“Antonio is not only one of the best Chargers of all time, he’s one of the best football players in the history of our game,” an emotional Telesco said. “These decisions are really, really difficult.”
Gates has caught 927 passes for 11,508 yards and 114 touchdowns — all Chargers records. He set the NFL record for TD catches by a tight end early last season.
Gates also ranks third in career receptions by a tight end behind Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten.
But Gates will turn 38 years old in June, and his role in the Chargers’ offense diminished steadily over the past three seasons. He caught just 30 passes for 316 yards and was targeted only 52 times last year, his lowest totals since his rookie season.
After the season ended with the Chargers barely missing the playoffs at 9-7, Gates expressed interest in playing again this year. He appeared to waver in that decision in recent weeks, but the Chargers recently let him know they were moving forward without him because Gates’ role would have been reduced even more in the upcoming season.
Gates’ resolve to play on is apparently renewed, but it won’t be with the Chargers and Philip Rivers, his quarterback for the past 12 seasons. Gates and Rivers have combined for 87 touchdown passes, another NFL record between a quarterback and a tight end.
Rivers addressed Gates’ tenuous future earlier this month after an offseason workout.
“You’d love for him to get one more shot to be with us and go make a run at it,” Rivers said. “If it were not to work out, and if he were to decide to hang it up, who knows? He’s had a heck of a run. He has nothing left to prove, that’s for sure.”
Los Angeles is loaded with pass-catching talent, including Pro Bowl receiver Keenan Allen and a full complement of wideouts. More importantly, tight end Hunter Henry has emerged as a top target for Rivers over his first two seasons, catching 81 passes for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns.
The Chargers also signed tight end Virgil Green as a free agent from Denver last month.
“As we were looking at it, we really felt like this is Hunter Henry’s time,” Telesco said. “We need to get him even more involved than we did in the past. We’ve got four receivers that we think are really talented that we need to get the football, and we’ve got two running backs.”
Gates is a beloved figure in the history of the franchise that relocated to the Los Angeles area last season after 55 seasons in San Diego. He teamed with Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson as the heart of a team that won four consecutive AFC West titles from 2006-09 and advanced to one conference championship game.
Gates’ entire NFL career has been a stunning success against the odds. After playing basketball at Kent State, Gates fashioned one of the most impressive careers by an undrafted athlete in U.S. sports history after he landed in San Diego and played his way into a vital role under coach Marty Schottenheimer.
Gates was particularly prolific in 2005, when he caught a career-best 89 passes for 1,101 yards and 10 touchdowns in Drew Brees’ final season as the Chargers’ quarterback. Gates was incredible again in 2009, catching 79 passes for a career-high 1,157 yards and eight scores. Injuries contributed to the slowdown in his production in recent seasons.
He has been selected for eight Pro Bowls.
Gates willingly made the move last year from San Diego to Los Angeles, where he already lived during the offseason. He then set the NFL record for touchdown catches by a tight end during a game against Miami at StubHub Center, surpassing Gonzalez.
Gates spent most of the season as a backup for Henry before playing extensively in the final two games after Henry was injured, still showing sure hands and the ability to get open.
“We put a lot of thought into where this roster needs to go, fully knowing that Antonio stepped in last year when we really needed him and played really well,” Telesco said. “That’s why these decisions are tough. But as we’re looking at how our roster needs to be constructed, it’s just the way it had to go.”
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