- Eric D. Williams, ESPN Staff Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- Antonio Gates had a bounce back year, playing a full, 16-game season for the first time since 2009. And Ladarius Green emerged as a big-play threat, giving the San Diego Chargers one of the best tight end combinations in the NFL.
Lock: Gates, Green
Looking good: John Phillips
On the bubble: Ryan Otten
Free agents: Jake Byrne
The good: Gates was productive, finishing with 77 catches for 872 yards and four touchdowns. Green emerged as a big-play threat the second half of the season, finishing with 17 catches for 376 yards and three touchdowns for an impressive 22.1 yards per catch average. Phillips developed into one of the better blocking tight ends in the league.
The bad: Gates fumbled twice this season, and bobbled another pass that led to a Philip Rivers’ interception against Cincinnati. Gates totaled three catches for 15 yards in two playoff games, after finishing with a team-high 114 targets during the regular season.
The money: Gates is due to make $5 million in base salary for the upcoming season. He turns 34 in June. Although Gates is getting long in the tooth, he still commands attention from defenses in the middle of the field, and teams have to game plan for him. The presence of Gates allowed other players like Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead and Green to shake loose in the passing game. Gates also provides a good veteran presence in the locker room, so I think the future Hall of Famer is worth bringing back at that number. Green will make $570,000 in 2014, and is under contract until the end of the 2015 season. Phillips is rehabbing from a knee injury that cut short his 2013 season, and is due to make $1.175 million in 2014. Phillips is under contract until the end of the 2015 season.
Draft priority: The Chargers could add depth at tight end, but other positions have more pressing needs. Green is developing into one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the NFL. And if Phillips returns healthy from a serious knee issue that required surgery, the Chargers solve their need a blocking tight end. Perhaps San Diego could invest a mid-to-late-round pick in another developmental tight end for the future.