It’s been just over a week since San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates was suspended for four games due to his violation of the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy, meaning he’s set to miss a quarter of the 2015 season.
Which means it’s also been just over a week since Ladarius Green was finally freed. Yes, he’s free at last, and the Chargers will be just fine without their nine-time Pro Bowler for a month.
In fact, the hand that’s been forced by Gates’ absence may help the Chargers, with Green’s athletic gifts finally given a chance to flourish, and he’ll then assume a larger role even when his 35-year-old mentor returns.
He needs that role, and the Chargers need him to rise into it, especially since Gates will eventually lose a fight against time. He’s been winning it lately, with two straight 800-plus yard receiving seasons in 2013 and 2014. Gates was also on the other end for 12 of quarterback Philip Rivers’ 31 regular-season touchdown passes last year.
He’s a reliable source of comfort in the red zone because of soft hands and the body control to secure space with ease. But he doesn’t have Green’s speed.
Green has plenty of height and muscle too while standing 6’6″ and weighing 240 pounds. He also ran the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds during his scouting combine appearance in 2012, and that speed has translated into lots of field stretching despite few opportunities.
Over the past two seasons Green has been buried behind Gates, with the Chargers either unable or unwilling to find a remotely consistent role for him. That resulted in the 25-year-old seeing the field for only 36.0 percent of San Diego’s offensive snaps in 2013, and 30.9 percent in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus.
Yet even in those brief appearances Green’s speed and spider hands led to high-volume receiving yards. Since 2013 he’s caught only 36 balls, and nearly 40 percent of those receptions ended in a 20-plus yard gain. His per-catch average during that time ballooned to 16.7 yards.
Green will easily slide into his starting job briefly, and newly signed wide receiver Stevie Johnson will also provide a reliable set of veteran hands, along with the wheels to churn out yards after the catch. Then there’s running back Danny Woodhead, who’s healthy now and only one year removed from setting single-season career highs in receptions (76) and receiving yards (605) out of the backfield.
The Chargers have weapons to survive without Gates, and one happens to be a towering tight end who doesn’t play like a tight end at all.