The Chargers did what they could to show their appreciation to tight end Antonio Gates, one of the best players in the team’s history, as they made plans to move on.
Tuesday, those plans might have changed.
Gates’ replacement, third-year tight end Hunter Henry, suffered a season-ending knee injury during the team’s first organized team practice activity, tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament during a drill.
Tuesday was the first day this offseason the Chargers could have the offense and defense facing off in drills, though contact is prohibited.
Henry, the team’s second-round pick in 2016, was inked into a prime role in the offensive plans for 2018.
“We really felt like this is Hunter Henry's time,” general manager Tom Telesco said as the team announced it wouldn’t be re-signing Gates nearly a month ago.
The Chargers’ reasoning was solid. As a rookie, Henry caught eight touchdowns and, in his second year, the offense moved best when he was a big part of the plan. And, after learning from Gates, he was ready to be a star.
“He took me under his wing and taught me everything he could these past two years,” Henry said of Gates earlier this offseason. “It’s been incredible. He's still a great friend of mine. I talk to him. … 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.”
With Henry out for the season, free-agent signing Virgil Green is the only tight end on the roster with meaningful NFL experience. Undrafted free agent Sean Culkin was on the roster last season, and Braedon Bowman spent time on the practice squad in 2017.
The Chargers also signed undrafted rookies Ben Johnson from Kansas and Cole Hunt from Texas Christian following the draft.
The big question now is whether the Chargers would re-open the door to Gates after nudging him out of it. He’s 37 and still an unrestricted free agent without a home, but showed late last season that he could still be productive as a fill-in for Henry.
Ingram absent on Day 1
Melvin Ingram skipped OTAs last spring, but he had been in the midst of a contract dispute.
He subsequently signed a four-year contract that guarantees him $42 million and could be worth as much as $66 million.
When the Chargers opened OTAs Tuesday, their star defensive end was … missing again.
“I’d love to see everyone here,” coach Anthony Lynn said. “But everyone that wants to be here is here.”
How did Lynn feel about one of last year’s defensive captains not wanting to be here?
“I would like for him to be here with his teammates,” Lynn said. “But these are voluntary, man.”
Gus Bradley, the Chargers’ defensive coordinator, said he has spoken with Ingram.
“There’s a great deal of trust with him,” Bradley said. “In communication, you build trust.”
What did Ingram communicate about why he was not here?
“That’s between us,” Bradley said.
On Tuesday, the Chargers played Chris Landrum in Ingram’s spot. The Chargers are set with Ingram and Joey Bosa as their starters at defensive end, but they are intrigued with Landrum’s potential as a backup and as an extra rusher.
Landrum impressed the Chargers in organized team activities last spring, then injured his shoulder in training camp and did not play last season.
“We’ve seen flashes of him,” Bradley said. “We like some of the skill set that he has. Now, consistently, can he do it? That’s not something we’ll know tomorrow. “
Bosa staying slim
The Chargers list Bosa at 280 pounds, but the Pro Bowl defensive end did not appear nearly so weighty when he met with the media Tuesday. Bosa said he dropped to between 260 and 265 pounds last season and has remained at that weight since.
“It’s more about speed,” Bosa said. “When I’m putting up better numbers, strength-wise, than I ever was, I don’t think there’s really a reason to put on any more weight.”
Allen filling Gates’ shoes
Wide receiver Keenan Allen was hit by the absence of Gates, the Hall of Fame candidate whom the Chargers let go after 15 seasons. Allen said he had gotten used to joining Gates as the last two players out of the locker room for practice.
Allen said he might be speaking up more this season.
“That hasn’t always been my role,” he said, “but I’m going to try to talk a little bit more, be a little bit more of a spokesman for the offense.
“I like to talk, anyway. I’ll be the trash-talking leader.”
Gordon going easy
Melvin Gordon considers himself a workhorse, durable and versatile enough to be featured in a one-back offense, but might occasionally flip a governor switch as he goes through off-season workouts and training camp.
The fourth-year pro admits he might have pushed himself a little too hard last summer in an effort to impress Lynn, his first-year coach, efforts that might have led to the knee injury that slowed but did not stop him midway through the season.
“I wanted to prove a point and show them why I’m the guy, and I may have done a little bit too much,” Gordon said. “I’m just trying to be smarter this time.”
Gordon rushed 284 times for 1,105 yards and eight touchdowns in 2017, and caught 58 passes for 476 yards and four touchdowns. He thinks those numbers could increase in 2018 with the addition of veteran center Mike Pouncey, the former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowler who signed a two-year contract in March.
“One of the biggest things I’ve heard is he’s a dog, he’s nasty,” Gordon said. “I like that more than anything.
“I’m excited to work with him, and I know [Chargers quarterback] Phil [Rivers] is excited about it, so I feel like we can be real special with Mike bringing that leadership and nastiness.”
Hayward trending up
Cornerback Casey Hayward was ranked 59th on the NFL Network’s list of top 100 players of 2018. If players were ranked by confidence, the two-time Pro Bowler would be No. 1.
“Last year I was #64 and this year I’m #59 on the top 100,” Hayward tweeted Monday. “Even though I see I’m trending in the right direction, y’all got to be crazy to think there are 58 players better than me in the NFL.”
Ingram (76th) and Rivers (56th) also made the list. The top 50 have yet to be revealed.
Staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.