With Antonio Gates gone, Hunter Henry is ready to be the man at tight end for the Chargers

Chargers tight end Hunter Henry hauls in a first quarter touchdown pass from quarterback Philip Rivers over Redskins safety Deshazor Everett at Stubhub Center on Dec. 10, 2017.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Friday night after the Chargers had completed the second and third rounds of the NFL draft, a bleary eyed, mentally tired Tom Telesco, the team’s general manager, opened his news conference by confirming a report from earlier in the day that tight end Antonio Gates wouldn’t be back for a 16th season with the team.

It was emotional for Telesco and the Chargers saying goodbye to one of the best players in NFL history.

But it was time — time for Gates to go and time for Hunter Henry to replace him.


Gates’ production was declining, and a younger, more dangerous player was waiting for a bigger role. And now, Henry’s going to get it.

“When I came in, it can be an intimidating thing when you come into that situation — a Hall of Famer, first ballot, and one of the greatest tight ends of all time [playing with you]. So, it can be intimidating, but he took me under his wing and taught me everything he could these past two years,” Henry said of Gates. “It’s been incredible. He’s still a great friend of mine. I talk to him. I was with him a couple of weekends ago. It’s been really cool to be able to play with him these past two years.

“But definitely, I’m ready to step up. … I’m ready to go.”

Henry’s star-making turn was supposed to begin in full last season, but a full cache of skill positions players resulted in Henry, a second-round pick in 2016, catching only nine more passes than he did in his rookie season. He finished 2017 with 45 receptions for 579 yards and four touchdowns.

The numbers had a chance to be better, but Henry suffered a lacerated kidney in Week 14, costing him the rest of his season.

“That kind of injury is really tough. It’s a freak injury. I felt like I took care of myself really well last year, and to have something like that happen, where I have to miss games for something I can’t control, it’s really hard to take,” Henry said Monday. “It’s something where I can’t push my rehab to try and get back on the field and something I can’t play through because I kind of look at myself like, if it’s an injury, I feel like I can play through it. I just kind of have that tough factor about me. But with something internal, it’s hard. You can’t play around with that.”

Henry is healthy now and Monday, during the second phase of the team’s offseason program, he was on the field running routes with the first-string offense.

Still, Gates’ presence will be missed.

“He was really a good leader. I had a lot of respect for how he handled our young guys,” offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. “The way he interacted with Hunter, when Hunter came in as a second-round pick. Even the way you see him mentor Keenan [Allen], some of the other players. He’s always had tremendous leadership, and he’s always been so approachable, just from the standpoint of even talking about techniques, or how you want certain routes run.

“When you combine that with the physical talent and the production that he has, it makes for one of the greatest players of all time.”

Without Gates, the Chargers will need Henry to perform in the locker room as more of a leader as well.

“I would like to see that,” Whisenhunt said. “I think that’s important, and I think he has that. He definitely has the respect because of how he’s played. And it’s not always easy to step into that role of being maybe a little more vocal and talking to guys. But when you carry as much respect as a young player as Hunter does because he was productive, that’s a big part of [it].”

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports