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Chargers tell tight end Antonio Gates that he won’t be re-signed

If Antonio Gates wants to play football for a 16th season, he’ll have to do it in a different uniform for the first time in his pro career.

Facing a further reduction in his role, Hunter Henry’s emergence and the free-agent signing of tight end Virgil Green, the Chargers communicated to Gates that if he were to keep playing, it would be elsewhere.

In his career, Gates has caught 927 passes for 11,508 yards — both Charger records. His 114 touchdowns are the most for a tight end in NFL history.

Gates joined the Chargers as an undrafted free agent, famously converting from basketball after helping Kent State reach the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

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With the Chargers, Gates quickly established himself as one of the top players at his position. In his second year, he caught 81 passes and 13 touchdowns and began a streak of eight straight Pro Bowl selections.

“We can’t say enough about the type of person he is and player. These decisions are really, really difficult,” Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said. “We put a lot of thought into where this roster needs to go, fully knowing that Antonio stepped in last year when we really needed him and played really well. But as we were looking at it, we really felt like this Hunter Henry’s time.”

Last season, though, Gates had his least productive year since his first in the league, with Henry’s role being increased in his second season.

Following Henry’s injury late in the season, Gates stepped in and caught 10 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown in the final two games as the primary tight end.

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Gates became an unrestricted free agent following the season.

Asked about Gates at the start of the team’s offseason training program two weeks ago, Gates’ longtime quarterback and friend, Philip Rivers, said he wasn’t sure what would happen.

“Great player. Great person. We all know our friendship,” Rivers said. “You’d love for him to get one more shot to be with us and go make a run at it. … If it were not to work out, and if he were to decide to hang it up, who knows?

“He’s had a heck of a run. He has nothing left to prove, that’s for sure. But to have him be a part and contribute to what we think can be a special year would be great to have.”

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Gates will turn 38 this June, though he proved late in the season that he can still contribute.

Asked about retiring late last season, Gates was non-committal.

“At the end of the day, I just want to do my best, to be in the present,” Gates said. “I don’t care about what the media has to say. If they say I’m done. I don’t really listen to it.

“It’s funny. I look at the game itself, and I’m like, ‘Can I still do it? Can I still beat a linebacker? Can I still beat a safety? Do I still want to do it? Do I still have a desire to put in the time it takes?’ ”

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If he does, it’ll be for a different team.

“I want to make sure I give him enough credit for everything he did here,” Telesco said. “I don’t want to miss anything. Antonio is not only one of the best Chargers of all time, he’s one of the best football players in the history of our game. He has meant so much to this organization.”

James in L.A.

Derwin James’ draft night celebration wrapped up around 2 on Friday morning, the spoils of a lifetime of work about to pay off. Four hours later, it was time to get to work.

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James ended up on an early-morning flight from Dallas to the Chargers’ facility, an area of familiar surroundings and comfort.

James spent his offseason preparing for the draft in nearby Santa Ana, and he won’t be heading back home between now and the team’s rookie minicamp.

Besides, home will be out here now too.

“I know the area like the back of my hand right now,” said James, the Chargers selection at No. 17. “I’m pretty familiar with John Wayne Airport. I was in and out of there. I know the area pretty well. I’m excited.”

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dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports


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