This season, 18 tight ends are on pace to catch at least 50 passes and nine are on course to finish with at least 770 receiving yards.
On Sunday, two of the NFL's most explosive tight ends will be on the field, with Gates and the Green Bay Packers' Jermichael Finley.
"He's a heck of a tight end," Packers outside linebacker Frank Zombo said of Gates. "He's a mismatch, kind of like Jermichael Finley for us. He's a tight end but plays like a wide receiver. He's definitely going to be a threat."
During Gates' rookie season, only three tight ends had at least 10 receptions of 20-plus yards. This season, two tight ends already have at least 10 receptions of 20-plus yards and two more have nine. In all, nine tight ends — including Finley — are on course to reach double-figures.
Big-play tight ends aren't unique to this area, which the Packers' Ron Kramer and the Colts' John Mackey reminded fans in their passing this year. Mackey, who was voted to the all-1960s team and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992, averaged 15.8 yards per catch and scored 38 touchdowns during a 10-year career. Of his nine touchdowns in 1966, six were from longer than 50 yards. Kramer, the No. 4 overall pick of the 1957 draft by Green Bay, averaged 16.0 yards per catch and scored 15 touchdowns from 1961 through 1964.
Gates and Tony Gonzalez, however, revolutionized the position. Until the last decade, most tight ends could be covered by a linebacker. Players like Gates and Finley, however, are too fast to be covered by a linebacker and too big to be handled by a defensive back.
"I think you talk to offensive coaches, you find the first thing they think about in terms of tight ends, especially in the passing game, are matchups because if they can get him on a linebacker and they feel they can out-athletic you," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
League tight ends are a little shy of the pace set in 2010, when players at the position established a new record for catches (2,256), yards (24,969) and scores (190), but they are ringing up big numbers again. Not only are there 18 tight ends on pace for 50-plus catches, but seven are on pace for at least 75 catches, both of which would be records. Among tight ends on pace to catch at least 35 passes, five are averaging at least 14.5 yards per catch.
"It's turned into a passing league so that traditional blocking tight end is kind of getting phased out," safety Charlie Peprah said. "We'll have our hands full (with Gates), because they can split him out, they can put him in a normal position. He can run his routes from anywhere on the field. We've got to be aware of where he's at at all times."
Chargers coach Norv Turner has seen the revolution first-hand. In his four seasons with San Diego, Gates has averaged 66 catches and scored 35 touchdowns. When Turner was offensive coordinator in Dallas from 1991 through 1993, Jay Novacek was selected to three consecutive Pro Bowls.
"I've been lucky throughout my career to be with some great tight ends," Turner said in a conference call on Wednesday, "all the way back to the Rams, we had a tight end/move guy in Pete Holohan, who always caught 60 balls a year and, obviously, in Dallas with Novacek, Those guys seem to be more prevalent. Obviously, Gates and (Finley), they're just great athletes. They're so versatile they can line up anywhere and run all the routes and they're playmakers."
Like Finley, Gates spends as much time lined up a a receiver as he does as a traditional tight end. The Chiefs double-teamed Gates on almost every snap on Monday night. Using the past as an indicator, Gates' presence will put the Packers in their nickel defense for most of Sunday's game, with Charles Woodson being the primary defender.
"Obviously he's a big part of what we do and has been for many years," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said during his conference call." I know Finley is a big part (of the Packers' offense). It's huge, huge to have a tight end that can run and play like a wide receiver. You see teams play it differently. A lot of teams don't play base, don't play that 3-4 defense when we're in two-tight end and two-wide receiver personnel. You have to treat those guys like wide receivers."
Gates, who missed time with a foot injury, has a modest 17 catches for 201 yards (career-low 11.8-yard average) and one touchdown in four games. Finley, his opportunities limited by the Packers' deep group of pass-catchers, ranks 15th among tight ends with 25 catches, 11th with 334 yards and is tied for fourth with four touchdowns. He's on pace to catch 57 passes for 766 yards. Paul Coffman holds the team's tight end records with 56 catches in 1979, 814 yards in 1983 and 11 touchdowns in 1983.
"I think everybody would be in agreement that you have to treat them as a wide receiver because of their unique abilities," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "They're both excellent space players, potential matchup problems for opposing defenses. Gates has done it for a long time, just the way he's such a natural instinct to create separation and catch the football. Jermichael has a lot of those same qualities."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.