This is a subjective business here, trying to compare players from different positions into one homogeneous list, but I can't put a tight end -- pretty much any tight end -- ahead of a quarterback of Rivers' ability. He is the man in San Diego. He is a top-five quarterback with everything but the ring to show for it.
Rivers is a fulcrum of an offensive machine with his hands on the ball 50, 60 snaps per game; Gates on his best day might do it 12 times. Rivers puts everyone in position to succeed, and Gates' production would surely suffer some with a lesser player throwing him the ball.
Gates might go down as the greatest tight end ever, better than former Charger Kellen Winslow. And Rivers might eclipse all that Dan Fouts did in San Diego when Fouts was playing with Winslow.
But I'll take a franchise quarterback like Rivers over even a tight end as accomplished and dangerous as Gates. It's a function of the overall impact of their positions.
Gates is among the most talented tight ends the game has ever seen. There's no denying that he has incredible play-making ability and that he warranted a prominent spot in the Top 100. But it makes no sense for him to be ranked higher than Rivers. The game-breaking element that Gates and the Chargers' other pass-catchers bring to the offense begins with the man who throws them the ball. Rivers' brilliant arm, decision-making, instincts, and general knack to make plays are what carry the bulk of the Chargers' offensive load. Replace him with a lesser quarterback, and neither Gates nor the rest of the supporting cast would be nearly as productive.
The Chargers' special teams might be the most vital aspect of the team based on last year's disaster in San Diego. Rivers is clearly the most important member of the Chargers' offense. Gates played in only 10 games, Vincent Jackson missed a majority of the season, and Rivers still challenged Dan Marino's single-season passing record before falling off the pace later in the season. And he did it with players that only the most ardent Chargers (or Fresno State) fans could identify.
I don't think this is a hard question to answer. The quarterback is the most important player on the field, and Rivers is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Ask yourself: If Gates is out of a game, what are the chances of the Chargers winning versus if Rivers is out of a game? There's a reason the franchise tag for quarterbacks is $16.4 million, while tight ends carry a $5.9 million tag. Gates is a great tight end with 69 touchdowns in 120 games, but Rivers has 136 touchdown passes in 84 games.
The fact is, for six weeks last year, the Chargers were without Gates. And, largely because of Rivers, they were 5-1 in those games.
Gates is rare and versatile enough to impact all areas of the game. A defense has to decide whether or not to treat him as a tight end or a receiver -- which impacts its fronts and personnel -- and Gates is a perfect player to bust an eight-man front or keep teams from lining up in them in the first place. He makes play-calling easier for a coach and play-making opportunities for teammates more plentiful in that way.
But all you need to know about Rivers' value is how he kept the team afloat last fall, when injuries turned the Chargers' skill talent from a "Who's who?" into one big "Who?" Despite losing Gates, Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee for extended periods, and having Jackson for just five games, Rivers threw for an astounding 4,710 yards, 30 touchdowns and a 101.8 passer rating (the third straight year he topped 4,000 yards, 28 touchdowns and 100.0).
At 29, Rivers is arguably the best deep-ball thrower in football, a player capable of lifting the level of his teammates, and one of the most respected leaders in the game. Gates is a great talent who'll be considered for the Hall of Fame, but it's hard to see how the Chargers go through all they did last year and still go 9-7 without Rivers.
Rivers is ranked four slots lower than Gates, but I don't believe that he's less vital to the Chargers' success. In my opinion, he's more vital. Yes, there is a symbiotic relationship between one of the elite tight ends in the league and one of the elite quarterbacks, but when it's all measured, the Chargers' best chances lie with Rivers at quarterback first. Consider how San Diego stayed in the playoff picture all last year despite horrific special teams plays and a revolving set of pass catchers. The common denominator? Rivers.
Cute question. The fact that you actually have to think about it for a minute is testament to Gates' greatness ... but, c'mon. It's a tight end versus a quarterback. By definition, one position is far more significant than the other. It's why quarterbacks are drafted far more often in the first round than tight ends.
By the way, Gates has only gone over 1,000 yards twice in his career. Todd Christensen did it three times and twice had more than 90 catches (while Gates hasn't done it once). Maybe Gates is the best at his position right now, but do you really think Vernon Davis, Zach Miller and Kellen Winslow (father or son) wouldn't put up similarly big numbers with Rivers throwing them the ball? Rivers made a guy named Seyi Ajirotutu look good last year.
All that being said, exactly what success are we talking about here? The "success" that's allowed these two fellas to play in exactly zero Super Bowls? Terrific. Some Dream Team.