Antonio Gates apparently won't be a first-ballot Hall of Famer until at least 2024.

The NFL's all-time leader in receiving touchdowns among tight ends, Gates is returning to the Chargers for a 16th season, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports Sunday morning.

This always felt like the likely outcome, even if the Chargers sounded reluctant initially to bring the franchise leader in catches, receiving yards and scores back following TE1 Hunter Henry's ACL tear in May. It should be noted the Chargers placed Henry on the PUP (physically-unable-to-perform) list Saturday, not season-ending IR (injured reserve), as they apparently hold out at least a bit of hope their future star's third NFL campaign can still be partially salvaged.

Meantime, a loaded club with real Super Bowl aspirations, even with the annual Chargers curse striking earlier than usual this year with not only Henry but Jason Verrett suffering an injury likely to end his season before it starts, just took out a valuable Henry insurance policy that no one should he happier about than Philip Rivers.

For the first time last season, Gates was the clear No. 2 option, playing 47 percent of the Chargers' offensive snaps (compared to over 56 percent for Henry) and totaling a career-low 316 receiving yards. He still did find the end zone three times, after beginning the season tied with Tony Gonzalez for the most receiving touchdowns ever by a tight end. And he'll begin the 2018 campaign with 927 receptions, which ranks 20th in NFL history and is within striking distance of Hall of Famers Art Monk (940), Andre Reed (951) and, who knows, possibly even Randy Moss (982).

It's the unrivaled red-zone and third-down rapport between the reliable Gates and razor-sharp Rivers that allowed him the opportunity to return after the Chargers had all but closed the door prior to Henry's injury. Frankly, we never understood why to begin, but that might have been our heart strings tugging at GM Tom Telesco to let an all-time great finish his career where it started.

Now it appears he'll have the chance. And even at age 38 and coming off the street the week the season begins, will anyone really be surprised if (when) Gates makes important contributions to the NFL's No. 1 passing offense that's already added a healthy 2017 seventh overall pick Mike Williams to the mix? We certainly won't.