COSTA MESA, Calif. — Antonio Gates was back practicing with the Los Angeles Chargers on Wednesday and getting ready for the opener against Kansas City.
It’s a situation neither party thought they would be in again back in April, when the organization said during the NFL draft that it was moving on from Gates after 15 seasons. But due to an injury to Hunter Henry, the Chargers signed Gates to a one-year deal Monday.
“I figured they moved on, but as time went by things went on that were uncontrollable and it kind of became more realistic that I would have an opportunity to come back,” Gates said Wednesday. “At the end of the day, the business side always has a certain effect. I wanted to be here. Our goals were the same and that’s what it came down to.”
Rumors about the Chargers star’s return had been around since late May, when Henry suffered a knee injury that is likely to sideline him for the season. After going through the preseason, the Chargers decided to bring back Gates.
Gates said he did receive calls from other teams during the offseason, but nothing materialized.
“I had no one that would interest me more than the Chargers. I just needed to see how it would all play out,” he said.
Philip Rivers, who lobbied for the tight end’s return after Henry’s injury, said it has felt like Gates never left.
“It is like he has been here all the offseason workouts and training camp,” Rivers said.
That may be what it feels like, but coach Anthony Lynn still needs to get a gauge on Gates’ conditioning before making any decisions on whether he plays Sunday.
Even Gates acknowledges that his age and missing offseason workouts are added hurdles to get over.
“I’ve always been optimistic about playing in a game whether I was injured or not. With that being said where it depends on how I feel,” he said. “You still have to get through the rust plus the first game is still intense and nervous. I still have to go out there and get in shape. You can’t duplicate playing in a game.”
One thing that isn’t affected at all is the chemistry between Rivers and Gates. The two have connected for 87 touchdowns, making them the second-most prolific duo in NFL history.
The 38-year old Gates is the team’s career leader in receptions (927), yards (11,508) and touchdowns (114), but his production in the Chargers’ offense had declined over the past three seasons. He was targeted only 52 times last season and had 30 receptions for 316 yards and three touchdowns. All of those were his lowest totals since his rookie season in 2003.
Gates’ 30 receptions are more than double what starting tight end Virgil Green had last year when he was with Denver. The eight-year veteran’s career high for receptions is 22 in 2016.
The addition of Gates should also allow the Chargers to run more two tight-end sets, something they were unlikely to do without him. The only other tight end on the roster is Sean Culkin, a second-year player who was on the field for 11 offensive plays in two games last season.
“I think it can be a crazy situation,” Green said about being paired with Gates. “We can do some great things. I think it is very beneficial especially just being out there to take over some of the love. One guy might be hanged up and you put another guy in there with no fallout.”
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