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 different."
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 touchdowns.
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.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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