Ladarius Green played played just beyond the midway point of the 2013 season before emerging as the deep-threat tight end the San Diego Chargers hoped they were getting when the team selected him 110th overall in the 2012 NFL draft.
But, can he overcome the legacy and consistency of Antonio Gates and start at tight end in 2014?
Week 11 of the 2013 season served as the catalyst for change in the Chargers game plan, as Green posted a career-high four receptions for 81 yards against the Miami Dolphins. In the play below, you’ll see that Green turns a simple crossing route into a 35-yard gain.
Former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt utilized a lot of motion at tight end, featuring Green on this play. The Dolphins defense didn’t respect Green as much as Antonio Gates, which is understandable considering the credentials of each player. Dolphins’ cornerback Nolan Carroll mistakenly double covers Gates, allowing Green a free release.
Just as a reminder, that’s a 6’6”, 237-pound tight end sprinting downfield.
After seeing how easily Green can shred a defense, Whisenhunt dramatically increased the number of snaps received. For the first 11 games of 2013, Green was only on the field for 21.2 percent of offensive plays. From Week 12 on, he played 59.7 percent of total snaps, including 80 of a possible 111 snaps in the Chargers’ two playoff games.
The Chargers continued to utilize Green’s diverse skill set in the passing game, as the Week 12 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs required another viable target besides star rookie receiver Keenan Allen. Quarterback Philip Rivers found Green leaking out on a Chiefs blitz, leading to another 30-plus-yard gain. Again, Green’s impressive athletic ability makes him dangerous in the open field. Not many other tight ends in the NFL have that same ability.
The play that really jump-started the Chargers’ plans to incorporate Green more into the offense is the play below. Running a simple crossing route, Green burns Chiefs safety Quintin Demps for a 60-yard touchdown.
The three plays I highlighted above are just three of Green's nine 20-yard-plus receptions. In essence, he’s the perfect match to play next to Gates, who enters the season at 34 years old.
No longer an explosive downfield threat, Gates has become a reliable third-down receiver. For the most part, veteran tight end is able to beat defenders with his polished route-running and power, boxing out defenders with his 6’4”, 260-pound frame. It is rare that he is able to get downfield anymore, although he was able to get one big play in 2013. This 57-yard touchdown against the Cowboys shouldn’t be a play expected of Gates on a consistent basis at this point in his career.
Green doesn’t have to rely on the fundamentals as much as Gates has to, and that’s an advantage when playing with Rivers. Many of Green’s catches in 2013 were in traffic, sometimes requiring him to leap over defenders to secure the reception. Rivers is willing to let his receivers go make a play, and there are few better at adjusting to the ball in the air than Green. He’s simply too big for cornerbacks and safeties and, as his 4.5 40-yard-dash speed shows, too fast for linebackers.
The new Chargers offense will stress speed and tempo, according to Bucky Brooks of NFL Network. New offensive coordinator Frank Reich was Peyton Manning’s position coach with the Indianapolis Colts, and plans to bring the no-huddle approach to San Diego. That means Rivers will have more plays throughout the game to throw the ball, which benefits Green.
Reich’s offense also means that Green will overtake the role that former Colts tight end Dallas Clark once fulfilled. That often will put Green on an island as a slot receiver against a linebacker or safety. That’s just another mismatch that Rivers will exploit with ease.
Green’s receiving ability isn’t the only reason he’ll challenge Gates for the starting job. Green is already one of the better blocking tight ends in the league, ranking 15th amongst all tight ends according to PFF.
Compared to Gates, who ended 2013 as 59th best tight end, Green acts as another offensive lineman for the Chargers’ rushing attack. Whisenhunt utilized Green as an in-line blocker often last year, which is what limited Green to only 22 receptions all season. The graphic below illustrates why the Chargers relied on Green so much for blocking.
By the end of the season, the Chargers couldn’t count on Gates' blocking anymore, as he no longer could sustain proper leverage and keep stronger defenders away from his body. Look at the following play, where Gates is lined up weak side and gets blown back, putting up little resistance.
For the Chargers offense to be as explosive as possible, the Chargers should play both Ladarius Green and Antonio Gates together as much as possible. Gates will serve as a slot possession receiver, where Green will be the strong-side blocker and stretch the field, horizontally and vertically.
His versatility allows him to be moved outside to receiver, inside to block or in between at the slot. He’ll easily double, possibly triple his 2013 snap count, which was a mere 370. If that is indeed the case, Green could get close to the 1,000-yard mark receiving, but if he can reach 850 and seven touchdowns, that would be tremendous production for his first season as a starter.
With Green’s size, skill and versatility, expect him to play more snaps in 2014 than Antonio Gates, even if the official depth chart doesn’t reflect it.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of ESPN.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.com.
Ian Wharton is a NFL featured columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for FinDepth. You can follow and interact with Ian Wharton on Twitter @NFLFilmStudy.