Fairly early in our phone conversation, after talking about a few different topics, Antonio Gates told me the truth: He doesn't play fantasy football. His entire career he has heard from fans (or in this case a reporter) about his impact on the game, how he has helped or hurt an imaginary team managed by somebody in the stands, but he doesn't have the time or interest in drafting a roster of his own.
That's too bad, because if Gates were to play, he would be able to draft himself and feel very good about it. There aren't many tight ends in the league that can duplicate the Chargers' star's agility and skills on the field, and there are even fewer who can fill up a stat sheet and dominate in fantasy football like Gates. He is Pro Football Weekly's top-ranked player at the position in 2011, based on his past success and the assumption that he will continue to dominate based on the offense he plays in and the teammates he has. More importantly, he has changed the position of tight end forever.
In 2002, the season before Gates arrived in the NFL, only one tight end had more than 70 receptions, a mere three had more than 700 receiving yards and none had more than seven touchdowns. The position was predominantly occupied by players who could find open spots on the field, but lacked breakaway speed to do something with the ball once they caught it. Run blocking, an ability to catch short- and medium-length throws and reliable hands were the primary traits NFL decision makers looked for when evaluating prospects. Only a small group of tight ends had the ability to jump up and make a play in the air, and even fewer could outrun defensive backs in the secondary.
Gates began his career as an exception to that trend, but now it's a rule: to be an elite NFL tight end, speed, agility and athleticism are a must. In the eight seasons since he came into the league, the Chargers' tight end has eclipsed the 70-catch barrier five times and gained more than 700 yards and scored more than seven touchdowns each of the past seven seasons. In the San Diego offense, Gates doesn't just complement the running backs and wide receivers, like some tight ends do. He is the focus of the attack, the man QB Philip Rivers looks to first when in need of a big play. In 2010, despite a nagging foot injury that eventually forced him to be placed on injured reserve, Gates gained a career-high 78.2 receiving yards per game and scored 10 touchdowns in just 10 games. In terms of fantasy football, he scored nearly 14 points per week, more than star RBs Michael Turner and Maurice Jones-Drew.
"The conventional tight end is gone, I think," Gates told PFW. "I mean, teams will always have one of those big 285-pound players who can block, but to me, to be a tight end now in this league you have to be able to make plays."
A basketball player in college at Kent State, Gates said his experience on the hardwood was beneficial to him once he got to the NFL. Listed at 6-4, 260 pounds, he was a bit undersized and heavy to play power forward on a Division I hoops team, but in order to contribute, Gates had to figure out how to use his body to his advantage. That meant figuring out how to beat defenders down the court, box out taller opponents with the ball in the air and navigate through smaller but quicker defenders. All of those skills helped the Golden Flashes reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament in 2002, and have been terrorizing football defenders ever since.
"What struck me about the NFL was the different type of athleticism. Everybody goes around and talks about basketball players being athletic, and they are, but it's different," Gates explained. "That's athleticism to jump and run, but they don't have to make the cuts and be both physically athletic like we do. It's not like you could just take a guy off a basketball court and put him on a football field and he'll be a success.
"As a 6-4 power forward, I had to figure out how to get rebounds over guys that were like 6-10. So now I can use that when I'm facing defensive backs."
Gates wasn't the first fast and athletic tight end in NFL history, following in the footsteps of players such as Kellen Winslow and Tony Gonzalez. But he has become the prototype player at the position, blazing the trail for the next generation of tight ends, including Vernon Davis of the 49ers, Jermichael Finley of the Packers and the Saints' Jimmy Graham. All three of those players are tall and fast, with the ability to make plays deep down the field. Gates said that the NFL is a "copycat league" and when opponents saw how well the Chargers' offense worked with an athletic tight end, they wanted one of their own. The same holds true for fantasy football, where because of high-scoring players like Gates, tight ends are no longer afterthoughts to be taken only when all the good backs and receivers are off the board.
"I don't know if I'm the No. 1 tight end, " the Chargers' All-Pro said humbly, mentioning players like Gonzalez and Jason Witten as his peers at the top of the TE ladder. "I'm just going out there and doing what I need to do. I let the people on the outside make the rankings."
We will, Antonio. Even if you don't want to draft yourself, you're still the top tight end in the NFL and the world of fantasy football.
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