CARSON, Calif. (AP) — Antonio Gates wants to play in the NFL next season, and the record-setting tight end intends to talk to the Los Angeles Chargers about staying with the team.
Gates expressed optimism about his football future shortly after the Chargers' resurgent season ended with a 30-10 rout of the rival Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
"I have a little saying that I say to my kids: I've still got the juice," Gates said with a grin.
Gates will turn 38 years old in June, but the top-scoring tight end in NFL history does not sound ready to retire. He caught four passes for 46 yards against the Raiders in his second straight game of heavy work — and the final game of his current contract with the Chargers, his only team in 15 NFL seasons.
"I think for the last couple of months, I was kind of on the border," Gates said. "I was trying to figure out what I can do physically. So just going out there and getting an understanding of what I can do. Can I still play? Sometimes you need that reinforcement, because as you get up in age, you need to go out and physically do it, because it helps you mentally."
Gates caught his 112th touchdown pass in early September, surpassing Tony Gonzalez's record for TD catches by a tight end. He finished the season with 30 catches for 416 yards and three touchdowns while largely playing behind Hunter Henry, the Bolts' breakout second-year tight end.
But with Henry out for the season in the past two games, Gates stepped up with 10 catches for 127 yards. He caught two TD passes in the Chargers' final three games, and his tiptoe catch near the sideline against the Raiders showed that his well-forged connection with Philip Rivers is still strong.
"I think you saw the last three weeks when he needed to be the so-called every-down tight end, he can certainly still do it," Rivers said of Gates.
"He was very effective when we needed him in a bigger role because of Hunter being down. Obviously, his contract is up. Shoot, he's had a heck of a go at it thus far, so we'll see where it is from there. So who knows?"
Gates realizes his future with the Chargers also depends on the team's opinion. Although he acknowledged that a move to a surefire Super Bowl contender would be tempting if the opportunity arose, he still feels a loyalty to the Chargers.
"When a championship is your priority, you'll always entertain the idea," Gates said of a move.
"But for me, I would love to win one here. That would be a priority for me, and I think however that has to happen, I will definitely talk it over with my family. ... To me, it would be beneficial if I did it here. It would be something I would love to do, but I understand the dynamics of the business."
Gates put no timetable on his decision, saying he will discuss it extensively with his family.
The Chargers haven't indicated whether Gates would be in their plans for 2018 when they already have Henry, but Gates was effective as a backup while staying healthy. Gates thinks the arrangement could work again — even if it goes against his competitive instinct.
"I think it was more conducive to me being productive, rather than enjoying it," Gates said with a laugh. "I don't think anybody enjoys being a backup, especially since I've been starting since I was 10. ... Enjoying something you're not accustomed to is the toughest part for me.
"I'm more comfortable playing the starting role than I am the backup role, but when you want something that you've never had, you make sacrifices. That's what it was for me."
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