Teams around the NFL were just beginning to stretch their legs in 2018's training schedule, when tragedy struck in Los Angeles. On the first day of organized team activities, Hunter Henry suffered an ACL injury that put an end to his season before it even began. Coming into this off season, all eyes were on him to elevate his game to the next level. Now that he (a main cog in the Chargers' offense) is out, where does the team look to replace him?
Less then a month prior, the Chargers informed long time Chargers' legend, 37-year-old Antonio Gates, that they'd be parting ways. Gates should be a shoe in for the NFL Hall of Fame, amassing 927 career receptions for 11,508 yards and 114 Touchdowns.
Team captain and QB Philip Rivers has mentioned that he'd love to see Gates back in a Bolts Jersey, but it's not his call and it is up to management to make that happen. But do the Chargers' executives want to bring him back in, someone who was incredibly hard to part ways with to begin with? Only time will tell, but I don't believe he is the team's first option or it would have happened already.
The only positive part of the situation is that Henry's injury happened as early as it did in the off-season. This gives the Chargers time to figure out a plan of attack.
The next guy up on their roster is Virgil Green, a free agent picked up this off-season, who just signed a 3 year, 8.6 million dollar contract with the Chargers. Green is known more as a blocking TE and was brought in to improve the run game and to pass block. He is most definitely an athlete, but has never been asked to do much in the passing game. During his best season, he had 22 receptions for 237 yards in 2016. The bright side is, Green's the only healthy TE on this roster currently with an NFL reception, and still has a couple of months to improve his offensive skills before the season starts.
A deeper internal look reveals 5 other TEs on the Chargers' off-season roster: three rookies and two young veterans. Sean Culkin and Braedon Bowman are going into their second and third season and now have a window to prove themselves. Culkin made the team roster last year as a rookie, but only dressed in two games, while Bowman has bounced around from the Jets to the Saints before landing on the Chargers' practice squad last year. This is what team offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt says about these young tight ends' progress so far:
“That’s such a hard position (TE) to find guys and develop guys there,” he said. “So when you find guys that get better in practice, you get excited about it. Now the next step for them is can they do it in our offensive scheme? Can they show up and make those kinds of plays? Not when it’s against the defense in practice, when we’re really competing against guys.”
This shows that the Chargers are definitely looking for an internal option to replace Henry, but if nobody shines at Chargers camp, there are a few external options to explore.
Free agents that the Chargers could acquire to fill the role until Henry's return are Coby Fleener, Julius Thomas and of course the aforementioned Antonio Gates. Fleener was released by the Saints after being riddled with concussion issues over the last two seasons, but showed promise earlier in his career in Indianapolis with Andrew Luck as his quarterback.
Julius Thomas was released by Miami after a lack luster year there in 2017. Like Fleener, he also impressed earlier in his career, having back-to-back 12 TD seasons as a Bronco. The Chargers could probably acquire any of these options for a one year deal and structure it so they have an escape clause at the end of training camp. This would give the player the opportunity during training camp to prove that they are the best option for the Chargers going into the 2018 campaign. However, the team could cut the player before the season if it didn't work out without effecting the team's yearly salary cap too much.
Trading for Henry's replacement might also be a possibility, although a more difficult and pricier option. Vernon Davis, Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, and Rob Gronkowski could all be options. These options are listed in order of probability because a trade for Gronkowski would have to involve multiple draft picks, a huge monetary contract for Gronk, and disappointment for Henry's future as a Charger. This would be a very difficult maneuver, but it seems the Patriots might be ready to move on from Gronk, who is looking for a contract extension this off season, and we all know that the Patriots don't like to pay up to keep talent around. This would however make the Chargers immediate Super Bowl contenders this year.
Vernon Davis has shown over the last two years at Washington that he shouldn't be forgotten, serving as the back up to ultra talented but also ultra injury prone Jordan Reed. The term injury prone isn't something to be used lightly, but unfortunately it is true when talking about Reed and his concussion history. Davis has proven himself in relief duties, chalking up 87 receptions for over 1,200 yards and 5 touchdowns in the last two seasons. Davis would be a great option if the Redskins are willing to make a trade.
Eric Ebron, who is newly acquired by the Colts, and Jack Doyle will be looking to the stars and hope that Indianapolis's Star quarterback Andrew Luck is back at full health for 2018. However, with the Colts having one of the league's worst defense in 2017, they might be willing to trade one of their tight ends to upgrade their defense. The Chargers are loaded in the their secondary, and if desperate, might be looking to make a deal.
One option could be for the team to switch to more 3 and 4 wide receiver sets, because they have a couple tall receivers on their roster. Keenan Allen is 6'2", Tyrell Williams is 6'4", Mike Williams is 6'3", rookie Dylan Cantrel is 6'3" and Geremy Davis is 6'2". Another possibility is that they could use one or more of these guys as essentially in the same role as a move tight end.
While the options are plentiful for the Chargers, they are all less than ideal. Their replacement focus starts internally with their young TE's. It will then will expand to an external look at free agency, finally ending with some phone calls to incite a trade. Primarily the Chargers are just looking for a one year bandage, but may end up with another solution that is more long term.