While usually lost among higher profile positions, strong play from the tight end has become a team staple within the San Diego Chargers offense.
It begins with one of the game’s elite receiving threats at the position in Antonio Gates. Across the past six years he has averaged 76 catches for 972 yards. Despite an increased focus on the wide receiver position, Gates still posted the highest yardage total of his career in 2009.
After the departure of mainstay blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, Kris Wilson will step into the backup role. Wilson is far more versatile than Manumaleuna, a quicker player who can line up as a tight end, H-back, or even fullback. He has better hands and good speed at the position.
He is however, relatively small for a tight end. For his size he is a good blocker, but at 6’2’’ 245 he is not going to be the goal-line force Manumaleuna was, which makes the team limited from a "power" perspective.
Regardless of role, the team now needs a third tight end—if only for depth. Where they fit the latest tight end into the team’s system will go a long way towards determining where they attempt to find that third tight end.
Gates is immovable at the starting position, and fills out the role of a pass-catching tight end ideally. He is never going to be a mauler, but has improved his blocking just enough over the years to not be a liability.
The bulk of early mid-round prospects fall within the realm of what Kris Wilson and Antonio Gates already bring solid wide receiving skills and sub 260 pound frames.
Unless San Diego wishes to look to life after Gates, the team can afford to be patient and wait for a later pick in order to land that solid blocking tight end that the team currently lacks.
Nate Byham would be the obvious choice if San Diego still had possession of its sixth round pick. He has a solid 6’4’’ 264 pound frame that is athletic enough to get downfield (be it on the block or in a limited receiving role).
He would give versatility to the tight end position, and possibly challenge Kris Wilson for the backup role behind Gates. Ultimately he makes a nice fit within San Diego’s needs, giving them the blocking tight end they lost in Manumaleuna, while showing an athleticism much better suited to San Diego’s more open offense.
The question they would have to answer is: Is he worth a fifth round pick given that San Diego has no sixth to make a play for him?
That answer lies more in who is still available along other positions than in Byham’s own ability. Given that San Diego’s four mid-round picks are likely to be divided between about seven or eight different potential needs, his pickup in the late fifth could be something of a luxury pick.
If that choice is not made, San Diego still has a variety of potential seventh round options that they can look for. Choosing here, they can likely land a player close to Byham in blocking prowess; they would simply lose the versatility and lock him into a role-player’s status.
Alabama’s Colin Peek is a tenacious blocker who could still manage limited pass catching duties. He also has fairly poor speed, and lacks that 260+ pound bulldozer frame, both of which drop him so far back.
If they wish to delve away from that and seek out a pure blocking tight end, then Greg Boone should be available even as deep as a seventh rounder or even potentially an undrafted free agent.
He fits the bill as a replacement for Brandon Manumaleuna perfectly with a similar 283 pounds of nearly offensive-lineman frame. He would also be equally as limited in the receiving game as Manumaleuna, filling in San Diego’s need of a third tight end for depth who can block in big formations and short yardage.
So just who is the ideal choice? Given San Diego’s strength at the top and stocked 2011 draft, for this year picking up a role-playing tight end in the seventh round edges out the versatility of Byham in the fifth, but only by the slightest of margins.
See the rest of the ongoing Chargers Positional Needs series: