<strong>July 29, 2005</strong>
Source: <a href="http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20050729/news_1s29chargers.html">San Diego Union Tribune</a>
Official preparations for Antonio Gates' encore season will start later than scheduled.
The Chargers Pro Bowler, who last season set an NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end, did not report to training camp yesterday.
Gates will not be at the team's first full-squad workout this morning at Chargers Park, and his agent said Gates will not report until he gets the long-term deal he desires.
"We are diligently working on a deal," agent Andre Colona said. "(Gates will report) when we get a deal. It could happen tonight; we're exchanging proposals . . . but it also could drag on."
Asked if Gates could miss the start of the regular season, Colona said: "In all honesty, I don't know if he's thought that far down the road. I guess as the summer and training camp progress, I'm sure that's an issue we'll have to deal with."
Such a scenario seems unlikely, in part because Gates would fail to earn an accrued season and be an exclusive-rights free agent again next year. It also behooves the Chargers to get one of their offensive centerpieces in uniform.
General Manager A.J. Smith did not return a phone message yesterday. The team did issue a statement addressing the absence of Gates and first-round pick Shawne Merriman.
Gates and Merriman are the only players among the 91 expected in camp not to report. The Chargers signed second-round pick Vincent Jackson yesterday to a five-year deal that included a $1.375 million signing bonus.
A person familiar with the Merriman talks said negotiations are ongoing, but it is unlikely the sides will agree until more top-20 draft picks sign.
The Chargers' statement read in part: "The team initiated discussions with Gates in the middle of the '04 season and talks are progressing with both players in hopes of coming to an agreement soon."
Gates seeks a contract in line with the best tight ends in the league. As an exclusive-rights free agent, Gates cannot negotiate with other teams. The Chargers are required only to offer him a one-year tender contract worth the third-year player minimum of $380,000. Because Gates has not signed a contract, he cannot be fined for sitting out.
While Gates has put together just one outstanding season, it was among the most spectacular seasons in team history. It is doubtful the Chargers would have been anywhere near 12-4 without his clutch play.
In addition to his 13 touchdown receptions, Gates was second in the NFL with 30 third-down catches. In all, 55 of Gates' 81 receptions accounted for first downs.
Gates, a basketball star at Kent State who did not play college football, was signed for $7,000 in 2003 as an undrafted rookie free agent. He started the final nine games of 2003, and while no one could have predicted his breakout would be so dramatic in 2004, he was the team's No. 3 receiver as a rookie.
Last year, in leading the Chargers in receptions and receiving yards, he used his basketball skills, speed and size (6-4, 260) to exploit matchup problems. He showed an exceptional ability to get open and seemed most of the time to be locked in with quarterback Drew Brees.
His 81 receptions were fourth in the NFL among tight ends. His 964 receiving yards were third among tight ends.
This year, Baltimore tight end Todd Heap, a four-year veteran, signed an extension that included $11 million in signing and roster bonuses. Kellen Winslow II of Cleveland signed a deal as a rookie before last season that included $10.4 million in signing and option bonuses. And eight-year veteran Tony Gonzalez of Kansas City, widely considered the benchmark of consistency among active tight ends, received $10 million in signing and roster bonuses when he signed his latest deal in 2002.
"He feels like he's the best tight end in the game, so he's looking for his market value," Colona said of his client. "We're just looking for a fair-market deal of what the best tight end in the game should earn."
Gates attended the team's minicamps and voluntary offseason workouts, even though he was not under contract.
"I feel like I play an imperative role in this offense and I want to make sure my team knows that I'm going to be there for them," he explained at the time.
"He loves football, loves his teammates, loves being out on the field at this time of year," Colona said. "But at the same time he understands that in addition to loving the game of football, there is also another side called the business of football, and he realizes he's dealing with the business of football.
"He's very disappointed because he has tried to give the organization everything he has, on the football field and off. But he understands now that it's business. But it's hard not to take it personally because of the kind of guy that he is."
Colona said he and Gates "went over all the issues, flipped them upside down, sideways and back and forth so he could be aware of all the possibilities, pro and con, of getting a deal done . . . He's well-versed on it, and as such he's comfortable with everything."