The 2018 NFL season hasn’t even begun, and yet, it’s already over for Hunter Henry.
On Tuesday, the Chargers lost their rising star in Henry, as the 23-year-old completely tore his ACL during the team’s first workout of the year, sidelining him for the entirety of the 2018-2019 season. And although the loss of Henry to a devastating injury certainly imposes negative effects on the Chargers’ offense, it opens up far more doors than it closes.
In terms of the tight end position, the Chargers originally planned to release and move on from their longtime veteran and eight-time Pro Bowler, Antonio Gates, who has held down the position for the team for the past 14 years. However, with Henry’s future in limbo, and a potential void at the position, it would make sense for the team to maintain Gates for the upcoming season.
Last season, Henry and Gates split time at the position until Henry went down after week 15 with a lacerated kidney, allowing the veteran to step into the role full-time. During the final two weeks of the season, Gates posted 127 yards on 10 receptions with 1 TD. But, throughout the course of the season, he amassed 30 receptions, 316 yards, and 3 TDs. Essentially, in two games where Gates got the starting nod, he was able to put up ⅓ of his production for the entire year. With the starting TE position for Los Angeles wide open, Gates could easily swoop in and take the job for himself.
It’s no secret that Antonio Gates still has some talent and potential left in the tank, it’s just up to the Chargers to find the strength that made their superstar tight end so prolific in the past. Throughout the majority of his career, Gates has been able to put up 800 yards and 70+ receptions in any given season, but with age, he’s lost his flair. His production has been on a steady decline for the past three years, and his availability on the field is waning.
However, Gates is still one of, if not, the most prioritized target for Chargers QB Philip Rivers. Despite Gates’ low snap count, he still received 52 targets from Rivers, just 10 less than Henry, who received 62 targets on only 6% more snaps. When Gates is on the field, Rivers loves to throw to him. The pair connected for three touchdowns in 2017, and if the veterans can reignite the chemistry that made them so deadly during the early portion of their career, it’s possible that the Chargers offense could be potentially frightening next season with a veteran movement leading the way.
Although the season remains to be over three months away, the Chargers still have a lot of planning to do in regards to an offense that has potential to be incredibly prolific in the near future. And while Hunter Henry’s injury certainly moves the operation back a few steps, the team still has the chance to make some power moves in terms of rekindling a QB-TE connection that made the team so frightening in years past. If Antonio Gates and Philip Rivers can get back on track and lead the Chargers offense in 2018, the team could be on a fast track for greatness.