How will SD replace Gates?

The Chargers will most likely be without All Pro tight end Antonio Gates when they take on the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. So which players will step up and carry the load? Norv Turner is counting on a trio of rookie pass catchers to deliver in the biggest game of their young careers.

Antonio Gates isn't exactly a Colt killer. In three career meetings with Indy, Gates averages less than 35 yards per game and has scored only once. However, his presence alone does wonders for the offense, and the Chargers will be without that on Sunday.

Brandon Manumaleuna will replace Gates in the starting lineup. The 288-pound tight end is a devastating blocker and an adequate receiver, but he lacks Gates' athleticism, fluidity and body control. Norv Turner moves his tight ends all over the field to create favorable matchups, a ploy defenses will no longer respect with No. 85 out of the lineup.

"It's a huge loss," LaDainian Tomlinson said. "If he can't go, that's a part we're going to miss because of the attention he attracts. Nobody is going to take his place, but we've got to have somebody make a play or two to help us get through it."

Buster Davis is the individual most capable of delivering those plays. The rookie first-round pick had multiple catches in seven games this season but lost his starting spot in Week 7 when Chris Chambers was acquired.

The Chargers will use three-receiver sets liberally against the Colts, as Norv Turner must find another way to keep defensive fronts from loading up to stop Tomlinson. That means more time for Davis, whose suddenness and run-after-the-catch ability have been underutilized this season.

Davis failed to hit the 40-yard plateau in any game this season—he has a great chance to get there on Sunday.

Other than Davis, the player most capable of replacing Gates' productivity is WR/TE Legedu Naanee. The rookie fifth-round pick is a hybrid player with the size to play tight end (6'2", 226 pounds) and the quickness to play receiver.

During training camp, Norv Turner moved Naanee all around the formation to create favorable mismatches.

"My impact will be primarily as a receiver, but I think they want me to play in a lot of different spots just to create some good matchups. When I play tight end, they are using me mostly as a pass catcher," Naanee said.

Gates' absence also opens the door for rookie fourth-round pick Scott Chandler to be active for just the second time this season. Chandler's first action came in Week 15 against the Detroit Lions, when he saw extensive time as a blocker after intermission, helping Darren Sproles run for 123 second-half yards.

Chandler is a big target over the middle (6'7", 265 pounds) with a long wingspan and strong hands. He knows how to use his frame to shield defenders, so Norv Turner might give him an opportunity to deliver his first professional reception in the AFC Divisional Playoffs.

It will be a group effort as the Chargers seek to replace to man who led the team in receiving each of the last four seasons. The four aforementioned players are all under the spotlight—one of them has to deliver the game of his life.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. He has followed the Chargers for more than 14 years and covered the team since 2003.

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