Gates Set to Resume Role as No. 1 Receiver

The Chargers added several offensive weapons this offseason: Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Le'Ron McClain and Dante Rosario. But the player with a shot to lift the offense to a championship level has already been on the roster for almost a decade. That would be Antonio Gates, who will drive the passing attack more than ever before.

When the Chargers lost Vincent Jackson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the question arose: Who is Philip Rivers' No. 1 receiver now?

Anyone who felt the answer came later that day with the pickup of Robert Meachem clearly has not been following the Chargers closely enough.

Antonio Gates has shown he his over the foot injuries that cost him nine games between the 2010-2011 seasons. He played in the final 11 games last year and had 56 catches for 704 yards in that stretch; project that across a 16-game schedule and you have over 80 receptions and 1,000 yards.

Health is not the sole reason Gates is in for a big campaign. Familiarity is another factor. Gates is one of just two players on the team who has caught at least 75 career passes from Rivers -- the other is Malcom Floyd, who has played 15 or more games just once in his eight-year career (Gates, by comparison, has done so seven times).

TE Antonio Gates
Harry How/Getty
Gates will also benefit from an improved run game (thanks to Le'Ron McClain and the development of Ryan Mathews). If the Bolts can excel on the ground, it will draw 'backers to the line of scrimmage and give Gates more room to work. It is no coincidence that Gates' peak coincided with LaDainian Tomlinson's.

Eddie Royal, with his ability to play out of the slot and draw attention over the middle, will also prevent defenses from paying excessive attention to San Diego's eight-time Pro Bowl tight end.

Add it all up and there are a lot of things working in Gates' favor. If he can stay healthy and keep his feet under him, he has a shot to put up the kind of numbers not seen since 2009, when he was widely recognized as the best tight end in the game.

Lightning Quicks

--The re-signing of Antonio Garay to a two-year deal was vital for several reasons. Among them is the fact the Chargers no longer have to shop for nose tackles in the upcoming draft. That frees up A.J. Smith to use his eight selections on other areas, such as (in no particular order) strong safety, outside linebacker, offensive tackle, running back, defensive end and cornerback.

--Chargers fans got all over Rivers for his uncharacteristically high number of turnovers (20 INTs, five lost fumbles). But this week, former Chargers QB Ryan Leaf reminded those same fans to be thankful for what they have in Rivers.

What do you expect from Gates in 2012? Talk about it inside the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 16 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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