Chargers missing top draft pick, All-Pro tight end

SAN DIEGO -- All-Pro tight end Antonio Gates, who became a
star in just his second NFL season, and top draft pick Shawne
Merriman, who's supposed to add another element of nastiness to the
defense, were no-shows for the San Diego Chargers' first full-squad
practice of training camp on Friday.

Running back LaDainian Tomlinson, for one, understands why Gates
is holding out for a big-money, long-term deal. He doesn't give
Merriman the same benefit of the doubt.
"Antonio knows the offense. It's different between him and
Shawne," Tomlinson said.
Gates didn't sign the $380,000 contract the Chargers tendered
him as an exclusive rights free agent during the offseason, opting
to hold out for a long-term deal the Chargers say they've been
discussing since the middle of last season.
"He was here the whole offseason and they still didn't get a
deal done," Tomlinson said. "The whole time he was working
without a new deal. Obviously he had to resort to another tactic.
Shawne's situation, he didn't show up for minicamp or anything."
Merriman, an outside linebacker drafted with the 12th pick
overall, stayed away from all offseason workouts because of
concerns he'd get hurt before he signed a contract.
While Merriman can expect a big signing bonus once he agrees to
a deal, Gates joined the Chargers in May 2003 as an undrafted
rookie following a successful basketball career at Kent State and
got a minimal bonus.
While making $305,000 last year, Gates had 13 touchdown catches
to set the NFL single-season record for tight ends, breaking a mark
shared by Mike Ditka, Wesley Walls, Todd Christensen and Jerry
Smith. He was a big reason the Chargers went 12-4 and won the AFC
West, making a team-high 81 catches for 964 yards.
Gates is believed to be asking for a deal that would average
between $4 million and $5 million a year, which would put him among
the league's top-paid tight ends.
"It's hard on people who don't get drafted," Tomlinson said.
"They're obviously behind the 8-ball with guys who are drafted and
they're looking for a fair deal. A lot of times guys tend to do
whatever it takes to get a fair deal. Antonio's situation is no
Tomlinson entered the league as the No. 5 pick overall in the
2001 draft and held out for most of his rookie minicamp. In his
first regular-season game, he rushed for 113 yards and two
Last summer, Tomlinson became the NFL's highest-paid running
back when the Chargers gave him an eight-year deal worth nearly $60
million, with $21 million guaranteed.
Tomlinson said he spoke at length with Gates in the offseason
about his situation.
"It's a tough decision because he loves football," Tomlinson
said. "He wants to be here. It has to be real tough on him. He has
to do what's the best thing for his family, but at the same time we
would love to have Antonio here. I'm pretty sure he's going to get
here as soon as he can."
Quarterback Drew Brees understands the business side of the NFL.
He wanted the Chargers to commit to him as their QB of the future
after his comeback season in 2004, but they stuck him with the
"franchise" tag, which locks him up for this year only, at a
little more than $8 million.
"I think he's got a good case," Brees said about Gates. "I'll
just leave it at that."
Gates' agent, Andre Colona, said he traded proposals with the
Chargers on Friday.
"The fact that we are still exchanging proposals, that's a
positive situation as opposed to not even talking," Colona said.
The agent said he's versed Gates on the business side of the
NFL. "Unfortunately, this keeps him away from his teammates and
the craft he loves to do," Colona said. "He does know that this
has to be taken care of. He's comfortable with everything."
General manager A.J. Smith offered few specifics on the talks
with the agents for Gates and Merriman.
"We have open communication with both, so I've got nothing else
to add," Smith said.