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Making the Leap, No. 9: Chargers' Ladarius Green

Around The League will profile the top 25 players we see Making the Leap in 2014. No. 9 on the list: San Diego Chargers tight end Ladarius Green.

Ladarius Green is the kind of player that didn't exist a generation ago. Antonio Gates, once the future of the tight end position, now plays next to him.

While Gates boxes out defenders like a power forward, Green is a stretch four, defying easy categorization. He's a swing player that can perform traditional tight end functions (blocking) while stretching the field with vertical routes. Green is made for a fast-break offense.

The change at offensive coordinator in San Diego should be a boon for the third-year player out of Louisiana Lafayette. Frank Reich is taking over, and NFL Media's Bucky Brooks revealed that the Chargers are installing many of the no-huddle principles Reich once employed under Marv Levy in Buffalo. The faster pace should benefit Green, who is a matchup nightmare for defenses that can't substitute.

The light finally went on in former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's head in Week 12 of last year, when Green was sprinting through the Chiefs secondary.

Before that play, Whisenhunt hesitated to commit to Green as San Diego's offensive X-factor. Green played only 21.2 percent of the team's snaps through the Chiefs game. He was on the field 59.7 percent after that.

Green's rare skill set combines flash and fundamentals. On one hand, he's a capable blocker. His lanky 6-foot-6, 237-pound frame is closer to Calvin Johnson's than Gates', yet Green holds his own in the running game. Green only left the line of scrimmage on 38 percent of his snaps according to Pro Football Focus, a far lower number than you'd expect because Green isn't on this list for his blocking.

When the Chargers let Green run loose, he goes deep. He made nine plays over 20 yards, and most of those were bombs, not runs after the catch. Rivers treated Green like a wide receiver because he plays like a wide receiver.

So many of Green's catches came in tight spots, leaping for the ball over defenders. He taps his feet on the sideline and adjusts for passes thrown behind him. He's too fast for linebackers and too physical for most cornerbacks, beating players like Brent Grimes and Chris Harris in one-on-one situations. Green is on this list, in part, because he's paired with the perfect quarterback. Rivers is more than willing to let Green go after the ball.

Obstacles


Green's increased playing time late last season was a great sign, but the Chargers haven't trusted Green to stay on the field much in his two-year career. His 370 snaps last year were fewer than the totals for tight ends like Lee Smith and Craig Stevens. Gates played 996 snaps. Meanwhile, Green was stuck on special teams, where he ranked in the NFL's top 30 in tackles.

Gates isn't going anywhere, so the Chargers will have to use more two-tight-end sets. Reich will also have to let Green fully use his receiving ability. He has 4.5 40 speed, so it was surprising to see Green often stay in to block so often when Gates went out for routes. Almost all of Green's catches came after starting the play as an in-line blocker. His numbers could explode if Reich moves Green into the slot or out wide more often, like the Chargers did in their wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals. He has the skills to be the best red-zone player on the team.

While Gates eats up snaps, he did not produce toward the end of last season. Gates averaged under 35 yards per game after Week 5, and he's no longer a top-five tight end. Green has a chance to be the No. 2 receiving option on a team that is full of questions at wide receiver after Keenan Allen.

Expectations


Per play, Green is already one of the best players at his position in the league. Among all receivers with at least 15 grabs last year, Green led the league in yards per catch. PFF has a great efficiency metric called yards per route run; only Rob Gronkowski was more explosive among tight ends with at least 100 snaps.

Gronkowski is the ultimate weapon in New England's up-tempo offense because he's so versatile. Defenses don't know if he will block, and they don't know which defender to match up on him. The opposition doesn't get a chance to substitute when things are going wrong. The Patriots' 2011-12 offense was so devastating because Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez didn't have to leave the field. They were more effective as a tandem. We expect the Chargers to treat Green and Gates similarly.

Stalwart U-T San Diego Chargers writer Kevin Acee expects Green's numbers to "at least double" this year, which sounds right to us. More than 850 yards and seven touchdowns is a fair target.

Beyond the numbers, expect Green to jump off your screen. There aren't many humans on the planet with his size and movement skills. As the NFL starts to look more like the CFL, Green is a prime example of where the game is headed.

The latest "Around The League Podcast" ranks the league's top tight ends and debates Andrew Luck vs. Cam Newton.

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