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Spotlight: Antonio Gates

posted by on Jul 26th


's thoughts

From 2004-2010, there was one king of the fantasy mountain for tight ends: Antonio Gates. He finished top-5 at the position every year during that stretch. In five of those years, he finished as either the #1 or #2 fantasy tight end. Moreover, he was stalwart during that stretch, missing only 2 games until 2010. In 2010, he finished as the second best fantasy tight end in only 10 games. Unfortunately, the reason he missed those games lingered into the offseason, through training camp and preseason, and into the 2011 season. A chronic foot injury forced Gates to miss time in 2011. Even when he was able to play, he was often used as only a part-time player. This resulted in Gates' lowest fantasy finish since his rookie year.

Some folks will argue that Gates' per game numbers in 2011 demonstrate he is still elite. A deeper look at his per game numbers in 2011 reveals a different story. In 7 of his 13 games, he had less than 8 standard fantasy points. In PPR leagues, his numbers were a bit better. Excluding week 2, which was a game where Gates was targeted only once before the team decided to shut him down until week 7, he averaged 5.3 receptions per game. With those additional 5 points per game, he was a solid TE to own in PPR leagues - until the fantasy playoffs. In weeks 15 and 16, he had 6 catches for 71 yards and no TDs. He was a non-factor in his fantasy teams' biggest games.

Consequently, fantasy owners are likely approaching Gates with trepidation in 2012. All early season reports regarding Gates' health are positive, and seem to indicate that his foot issues are a thing of the past. However, Gates is 32 heading into the 2012 season. His age, combined with his 2010/2011 foot problems, should give folks pause to think that maybe the wheels are starting to fall off Gates.

Regarding changes to his situation for 2012, the most important change is that wide receiver Vincent Jackson is now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This means Gates might see a return to double digit touchdowns and an increase in targets. Check out the below charts. The first shows Gates' touchdown production compared to Jackson's:

Year Gates Jackson
2004 13 0
2005 10 0
2006 9 6
2007 9 3
2008 8 7
2009 8 9
2010 10 3
2011 7 9

The above indicates that, as Jackson's touchdown totals rose, Gates' declined. With Jackson gone, can Gates' touchdown totals reach double digits in 2012? Likewise, let's look at the players' targets:

Year Gates Jackson
2004 111 0
2005 140 8
2006 119 56
2007 117 80
2008 92 101
2009 114 107
2010 65 24
2011 88 114

As Jackson's targets rose, Gates' dropped. With Jackson gone, will Gates see over 110 targets in 2012?

Given Gates' career 67% catch versus target ratio, and his career 13.1 yard per catch average, 110+ targets could mean 70-75 receptions, 950-1000 receiving yards, and a reasonable shot at 10 touchdowns. This would give Gates around 155 standard fantasy points, and around 225 PPR Fantasy points. At that level of production, Gates would have been the #3 fantasy tight end in 2012's year of the tight end. Moreover, that kind of fantasy finish would be good for 11th best by any TE in the last 10 years. Finally, it would be Gates' fourth most fantasy points scored in any year. Obviously, that is an optimistic outlook for Gates and it presumes he will play in all 16 games this year. However, and this is important, it is not an unrealistic outlook for Gates in 2012.

Given that kind of upside, owners with trepidation might also be owners willing to take Gates in the early fifth round of their fantasy drafts, ahead of all tight ends not named Graham or Gronkowski. Before those owners start penciling Gate into their "perfect draft" wish list, they should look at some historical numbers. Owners will discover that the odds are stacked firmly against the 32-year-old Gates reaching such milestone numbers. Tight ends over 32 years old since 1992:

  • 10+ TDs: Twice (Tony Gonzalez in 2008 at 32 years old and Wesley Walls in 1999 at 33 years old)
  • 70+ catches: Five times (Tony Gonzalez from 2008-2011 at 32 to 35 years old and Shannon Sharpe in 2001 at 33 years old)
  • 65+ catches: Six times (the above five examples, plus Pete Metzelaars in 1993 at 33 years old)
  • 900+ receiving yards: Once (Tony Gonzalez in 2008 at 32 years old)

Readers should take two things from the above numbers. First, tight ends over 32 years old experience a sharp drop in productivity. They are unlikely to reach 65 catches, 900 yards, or 10 TDs, no matter how good they have been in their career. Is a tight end with 64 catches, 899 yards, and 9 touchdowns worth a 5th round draft pick? Second, Tony Gonzalez was an amazing fantasy tight end with previously unheard of productivity for his age. Up to now, Antonio Gates has been dominant at the tight end position similar to the way Tony Gonzalez was dominant. Will Gates continue his productivity after age 32 the same way Tony Gonzalez did?

Fantasy owner will have to answer all the questions I presented before facing their fifth round decision on whether to grab Gates. Other options exist: Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, Aaron Hernandez, and Jermichael Finley are available when owners would be selecting Gates. Are owners willing to gamble on Gates bucking the trend of aging tight ends, or would it be wiser to play it safe with a younger tight end?

Positives

  • Track record of success as an elite fantasy tight end from 2004-2010, especially in PPR leagues.
  • Touchdown and target competition Vincent Jackson is gone via free agency, and replacement wide receivers Robert Meacham and Eddie Royal are not likely to be the same kind of vultures.
  • His current ADP lands him squarely in the sweet spot for tight end value, and he arguably has as much (or more) upside as any of the tight ends being drafted where he is being taken.

Negatives

  • The historical numbers for tight ends over 32 years old shows a limited upside.
  • Though reports indicate Gates is healthy, chronic foot injuries are just that - chronic; will this injury flare up again?
  • Could the loss of Jackson have an opposite effect on Gates in that opposing defenses will be able to key on him more often?

Final thoughts

My take on Gates this year is that, on any given day, he is the most likely tight end to match or exceed the production of Rob Gronkowski and/or Jimmy Graham. I answered most of the questions I posed above affirmatively for Gates in 2012. Though Gates' long term prospects are murky to unfavorable, I believe he can continue his productivity for at least one year past his 32nd birthday the way Gonzalez did. Gates' game is not built on speed, but on smarts. Most importantly, he has the trust of his quarterback and head coach, he is likely to see an increase in looks over what he has seen the last few years, and he is just as likely to be Philip Rivers' favorite red zone target.


Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

mlball77 said:

Gates is getting older and injury issues have hindered him the last couple of seasons. If he truly is healthy, and can remain relatively so for the entire season, then he should be in store for a big year. However, I think there is a real chance he could fight through some issues again this year. Only time will tell. -And while the VJax departure leaves a good slice of receiving yardage/tds available for other receivers in SD, I would expect most of that stuff would go to the WRs, yet Rivers could well lean on Gates a touch more this season.

az_prof said:

Gates per game production has not really fallen as he has aged. But the last two seasons he has missed games because of injury.

I think you have to assume he will miss some games, but I think it reasonable to expect comparable per game production. Let's assume 13 games again, as last year. And let's base production on average of the past 3 seasons.

During the past three seasons he has averaged 4.9 receptions/game. He averaged 14 yards per catch. And he has caught 1 TD for every 7.72 receptions.

13 games: Receptions, 64, 896 yards, 8 TDs.

Given the departure of Jackson, IF Gates stays fully healthy, he could improve drastically on all these numbers. But given his injury history and his age, I think this is a reasonable projection.

Grahamburn said:

I don't agree with expecting him to miss games, but I agree going by points per game is a great way to approach a projection for Gates.

His per game averages in 2010, the season where Vincent Jackson sat out the first 12 games, are outstanding. He averaged 78.2 yards per game and 1 TD per game during that season. Philip Rivers leaned on Gates big time with Jackson out of the lineup. We can expect Rivers to do that again with an overhauled WR corps in San Diego.

In 2011 he averaged 64.83 yards and .58 TDs. If you combine those two seasons we get a 16 game projection of 1,040 yards and 11 TDs. I realize this would be a career year for Gates, but i don't predict injuries, and current news on Gates regarding his injury is positive.

It may not be logical to expect that to be his end of season numbers, but the important thing to take away from this is Antonio Gates can keep up with the elite TEs on a points per game basis, and you can get him a few rounds later.

FF Ninja said:

After owning Gates in 2010 and reading all about his injury I was very wary of him last year. That injury is going to bother him for the rest of his life. When he sat out four weeks, I felt confident I'd made the right decision. However, he put up good numbers when he got back on the field. In 11 straight games (no bye week in that span to rest up), he caught 56 of 74 targets with 7 touchdowns. Extrapolate that to 16 games and you've got 81 catches, 1024 yds, and 10 TD. The bad news is that he averaged a relatively low 12.6 ypr during that span and his catch % was about 8.5% higher than his career average, meaning his reception total might have been inflated. But the main thing I took from that was that he learned how to play with the injury.

With Vincent Jackson gone, Gates has to be the top threat near the end zone. Of course opponents will know this, so it could be argued that it'll be a wash, but with Rivers as his QB I'm giving Gates the nod here over the defense. He was scoring like crazy in 2010 without VJ, so I predict he'll see a bump this year, too. I also expect him to see more targets than last year with VJ gone, although I'm not going to predict a huge jump. Maybe 7.0 targets/game - a number he has topped five times in his career. It would not be shocking to see him exceed those targets, particularly if Meachem disappoints.

TheDirtyWord said:

If you owned Antonio Gates last year (I did), you couldn't help but feel disappointed in the final result of Gates season. 13 games played (although 1 where he put up no stats as he was clearly hobbled), 64/778/7. But even if you include that game, that prorates to 79/958/9. Fact is, Gates despite really having to deal with a painful plantar fasciitis issue all year, was still pretty good.

But compared to the new breed of prolific TE that emerged in 2011 in the form of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, Gates' production almost seemed quaint by comparison. And in reality, despite Gates deceivingly solid numbers, he was really never prolific at any point in 2011. But he still was the central cog in the SD passing game and with the departure of Vincent Jackson, figures to be once again so long as he can maintain his health which now is a solid 'if'.

When people drafted Gates in 2011 though, the thought was that Gronkowski/Graham numbers were in fact possible for him. After all, in 10 games, Gates put up 50/782/10. He was a difference maker. Could this level of per game production be in his future? I would say that his topline production probably will never approach that level. He's always been a physical match-up nightmare for defenses in years past, but he really got most of his production though pure veteran guile. His YAC production declined sharply:

2009: 44.3% of yardage production, 6.5 YAC/reception
2010: 42.3% of yardage production, 6.6 YAC/reception
2011: 34.4% of yardage production, 4.2 YAC/Reception

...which really accounted for his per game yardage total decrease. Beside Peyton Manning, Gates could make a solid claim that was hurt as much as anyone by the lockout from a health standpoint. Not being able to rehab with Chargers doctors pretty much prevented Gates from preparing properly for the season. But the fact is that at 32, so long as Gates keeps himself in shape...he's going to be among the leagues elite TE's again this year with probably a better showing, or a showing more similar to the pre-2011 Gates than last years version. But not a complete return to form.


Antonio Gates projections

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