KANSAS CITY — Anyone looking for a good tight end might be smart to scout the NCAA basketball tournament.
The sport of basketball, where big guys learn to jump, maneuver in tight spaces and use their bodies to block out, has been breeding some great tight ends of late.
There are no finer examples than Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, who’ll be on display today when the Kansas City Chiefs (3-7) host the San Diego Chargers (7-3).
Gonzalez, the Chiefs’ four-time All-Pro, has always credited his experience as a power forward at California with honing his skills as an NFL tight end.
Now into the league comes San Diego’s Gates, who didn’t even play college football but excelled as a power forward for Kent State.
Just two years after a sharp-eyed scout remembered that the athletically gifted Gates had also been a star football player in high school and persuaded San Diego to sign him as an undrafted free agent, Gates has hit the big time. After catching eight balls for 101 yards in a victory over Oakland last week, he’ll invade Gonzalez’s turf with nine touchdown receptions and a league-leading 62 catches.
He’s a major reason the Chargers have turned things around and become contenders in the AFC West after a miserable 4-12 year.
“Antonio has a great attitude about this sport,” said San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer. “His skills are quite similar to Tony’s. He probably is a little thicker, but he’s not as rangy as Tony.”
Gonzalez, 28, is having the best year of his career, with 56 catches for 733 yards and five touchdowns. An accomplished blocker as well as receiver, the 6-foot-5, 260-pounder has more career receptions (524), yards (6,380) and touchdowns (52) than any other active tight end.
“Nobody is playing the position of tight end better than Tony Gonzalez is right now,” said Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil. “Nobody.”
Sprint champions frequently fizzle when they attempt to transfer their talents and become NFL wide receivers. So what is it about basketball that helps develop tight ends?
“It’s a combination of things,” said Gates. “I can’t speak for a lot of guys who played basketball. But for me, it’s my hand-eye coordination from basketball, as well as catching the ball — boxing out to get a rebound.”
Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders was with the Chargers 20 years ago when a former basketball standout named Kellen Winslow blossomed into a Hall of Fame tight end.
“Kellen didn’t play football until his senior year in high school and he played basketball for a time after he got to school at Missouri,” Saunders said. “Typically, basketball players have good size and they are very gifted working in space. They move well. In the three major pro sports — football, basketball and baseball — the basketball players are probably the best overall athletes.”