COSTA MESA, Calif. — While disappointed, Los Angeles Chargers general manager Tom Telesco is not in panic mode after losing one of the team’s best offensive players for the season.
Tight end Hunter Henry suffered a right ACL injury in practice last week, ending his 2018 campaign. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Henry’s 12 receiving touchdowns is tied with Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs for the fourth-most over the last two seasons.
Henry was expected to take another jump in production this season with future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates leaving the Chargers in free agency. Now, the Chargers have to figure out how to fill the huge void left by Henry’s absence.
“It’s going to be harder without him, but let me be clear: We’ll adapt and move on,” Telesco said. “Chargers fans should be very comfortable with the fact of Anthony Lynn as the head coach and Ken Whisenhunt as the offensive coordinator. They’re both very smart, very adaptable coaches. And we’ll find a way. It may be a different way than we mapped out initially, but we’ll find a way.”
Expect Lynn and Whisenhunt to devise a multi-pronged strategy to replace Henry’s production that includes the use of different personnel and schemes to find the right matchups.
Here are three things the Chargers can lean on with Henry gone:
Virgil Green and the play-action game
Signed to a three-year, $8.6 million deal this offseason, Virgil Green was brought in because of his ability as a run blocker. However, Green has played for seven seasons in a similar offensive scheme while with the team’s AFC West rivals, the Denver Broncos, which should ease his transition to the Chargers.
Whisenhunt said that Green possesses the speed and hands to have more of an impact in the passing game.
“Number one, we’ve played against him for a number of years,” Whisenhunt said. “Just from watching their offense when we’d go against a common opponent, I’ve seen him play. And then all the offseason work we did in evaluating him in free agency. You felt like you had a pretty good feel for what he could do.
“But I think more importantly is he’s played in this offense. Our terminology, what they do is very similar to what we do, so the learning curve isn’t as big. He’s done a nice job with that. I think when we get the pads on in camp and you can see in that arena, that forum, we’ll be very happy with what he brings to the table.”
Here’s one way the Chargers can get Green more involved — play-action passes in heavy formations when teams are expecting the Bolts to hammer the defense with Melvin Gordon.
Ten of Green’s 14 catches last season, including a 1-yard touchdown reception, came on play-action passes.
Moreover, Philip Rivers has been efficient in the play-action game.
Over the past two seasons, Rivers has completed 62 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions on play-action passes. Rivers’ 111.7 passer rating on play-action passes is No. 3 in the NFL over that period.
So plays like this 44-yard catch by Green against the Chargers in the season opener last year could be a way for Whisenhunt to get Green involved.
Keenan Allen had the third-most receiving yards and fifth-most catches among wide receivers between the numbers last season. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Expect more three-WR sets with Keenan Allen inside
Henry was such a critical weapon for the Chargers because he could make explosive plays in-between the numbers in the middle of the field. However, the Chargers have a premier playmaker and potentially an ascending talent that can help fill some of the void left by Henry’s absence.
The Chargers ran three-receiver sets on 584 offensive snaps last season, No. 20 in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Chargers used at least two tight ends on 374 offensive snaps last season, No. 8 in the league.
With Henry out and last year’s first-round selection Mike Williams expected to contribute at the start of the year, expect the number of three-receiver sets to go up in 2018, and the number of two-TE sets to decline.
Further, according to ESPN Stats & Statistics, Allen had the third-most receiving yards and fifth-most catches among wide receivers between the numbers last season. Allen could replace some of the production lost by Henry over the middle of the field.
With a limited amount of reps, Williams finished with four receptions for 51 receiving yards on 10 targets last season in-between the numbers. If healthy, that number likely will go up for the Clemson product. Because of his wide catch radius and athleticism, Williams is a prime target for Rivers to use in the middle of the field.
Rivers shares conversation with GatesChargers QB Philip Rivers says that Antonio Gates will be ready if he is called upon to the return to the team.
If he returns, Antonio Gates still creates matchup issues
The Chargers remain noncommittal on whether the team will bring back Antonio Gates, although Rivers is a proponent of his teammate returning to the fold.
It’s fair to question whether Gates, who turns 38 years old on June 18, still has gas left in the tank.
Look, Gates is no longer a No. 1 tight end in the NFL. However, as a complementary player in the offense, Gates can still win favorable matchups with limited reps.
The Chargers played Gates in 478 offensive snaps last season. He totaled 30 catches for 316 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 51 targets. With Henry out the last two games of the 2017 season due to a lacerated kidney, Gates totaled 10 catches for 127 receiving yards and a score.
The Chargers could use him in a similar manner with comparable results in 2018.
Gates still commands the attention of the defense in the red zone, like this 3-yard TD against rookie safety Jamal Adams in a Week 16 contest against the New York Jets, or this 10-yard score matched up with linebacker Derrick Johnson against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14.
“This guy is one of the best to ever play the game,” Whisenhunt said. “He’s a Hall of Famer, so you always love to have a chance to work with a guy like that.”