Positional Analysis: Tight End

There are very few unwinnable spots for rookies on San Diego's roster, but tight end is one of them. The Chargers will carry three veteran tight ends this season, each of whom will play a significant role in the offense.

If there was any question about how much the Chargers value Antonio Gates, it was answered emphatically when the team signed him to a five-year, $36 million deal that makes him the highest paid tight end in the NFL.

Gates is coming off one of his finest seasons, catching 79 balls for a career-high 1,157 yards and eight TDs. The asterisk, of course, is that Gates' huge receiving stats coincided with Vincent Jackson's breakout season. One of the reasons Gates was so successful was that No. 83 was able to draw defenders outside of the hashes and deep down the field, giving Gates more room to operate.

With Jackson out for at least three games and likely more, the dynamic will change. Will Gates' numbers decline because of the extra attention? Or will they increase now that he is the unquestioned No. 1 weapon on offense?

Regardless, Gates has averaged over 972 yards and nine touchdowns over the last six seasons, so it's safe to assume he will head to his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl if he stays healthy.

TE Antonio Gates
Gregory Bull/AP
The No. 2 tight end over the last four years has been Brandon Manumaleuna. However, the big-bodied blocker signed with the Chicago Bears this offseason. His role will now be filled by seven-year veteran Kris Wilson and newcomer Randy McMichael.

Wilson assumes Manumaleuna's mantle as the best blocking tight end on the roster. A former fullback, Wilson (6-foot-2, 245 pounds) will spend some time lined up in the backfield, serving as Philip Rivers' personal protector in obvious passing situations.

Wilson has shown he can make an impact as a receiver, as well. Last season, he scored a touchdown in San Diego's dramatic come-from-behind win over the New York Giants. He also found the end zone in the Chargers' playoff loss to the New York Jets.

Sharing snaps with Wilson will be Randy McMichael. A prolific receiver, McMichael caught at least 34 passes in seven of his eight seasons, the lone exception coming two years ago when he missed 12 games with a foot injury. He caught at least 60 balls every year from 2004 to 2006 and should help the Chargers present some dangerous two-tight end sets.

McMichael also provides some insurance incase Gates' foot -- which bothered him some during the offseason -- becomes an issue again.

The Chargers have two rookie tight ends on the roster: UDFA Richie Brockel and seventh-round pick Dedrick Epps.

Epps was considered the favorite to be the No. 3 tight end until the Chargers signed McMichael after the draft; he is a frontrunner for a spot on the practice squad. Brockel, barring injury, is merely auditioning for other teams.

Lightning Quicks

--For an exclusive interview with rookie TE Dedrick Epps, click here.

--For an exclusive interview with rookie TE Richie Brockle, click here.

Is tight end the strongest position on the roster? Discuss inside the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003. You can see more of his updates by following him on twitter.

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