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Evaluating the Tight Ends with TE Coach John McNulty

Over the coming weeks, we'll be checking in with the Chargers' position coaches and coordinators to get the inside scoop. We continue with TE Coach John McNulty.

Chargers.com:This is your second year coaching tight ends for the Bolts.  How's it been going for your group under Head Coach Anthony Lynn?

McNulty: It's really not too different because we have all the same guys back. Last year we had Antonio Gates and then everyone else was new.  None of these other guys had played here or this season. We were starting from scratch with guys from all different backgrounds.  From high draft picks to free agents to guys who had been in the league for a while.  But this year it's different.  The great thing about this group is how into football they all are.  They're all fundamentally sound, tough players.  They work and study hard every day, so going into our second year together, I think we should see even greater improvement.

Chargers.com:That's saying a lot considering Hunter Henry ranked first among all NFL tight ends with seven touchdown catches while Antonio Gates had the second-most with six.

McNulty: That's pretty rare to have two guys able to do what they are capable of doing.  They finished one-two like you said.  But I think really everybody can get better because we're playing in a similar system. Now, we're going to tweak some things, which is always good to keep things moving forward.  But I think we expect to play even better because it's yet another year honing our skills in a system we all already know.

Chargers.com:When we spoke last offseason, you said how Hunter Henry is a rare find, for a rookie, as an all-around tight end.  Could you have imagined the success the second round pick had right off the bat? Just how special of a player is Hunter?

McNulty: Well, he led the league in touchdowns, and that's not something you ever expect out of a rookie. But Hunter is a kid who is going to play a long time with a lot of successful seasons. For a young player, he's got a tremendous amount of poise.  He has rare awareness and savvy for someone his age.  You don't have to spell everything out A-Z for him.  The biggest thing is that he has ball skills.  He can catch the ball that gets in on him fast, and he makes the contested catches with big, strong hands.  You look at some of those touchdown catches, they weren't easy.  Balls were down below his knees, up over his head and he had guys draped over his back.  But he's just able to concentrate and make those plays.  Those touchdowns and third down conversions are obviously big plays, and can make the difference in a game.  That is what separates him from a regular player.

Chargers.com:He's also well versed as a blocker.

McNulty: Absolutely, and that's rare, too.  Nowadays you look and say, that guy is a blocker and that guy is a receiver. Not everyone is well versed in both (areas).  There are rare guys who you feel can do both at an exceptional level, but that is what Hunter has shown he can do already.  I think he will keep getting stronger as a younger guy.  He also is a hard worker; we don't have any problems there.  He has a great future ahead of him. 

Chargers.com:You got the chance to coach Antonio Gates when he tied the all-time NFL record for touchdown catches by a tight end.  Everyone obviously knows Antonio Gates.  But being around him for a whole year and seeing him get that record, what was it like to coach a legend like that?

McNulty: It's NFL history.  So much about him is NFL history.  For an undrafted free agent to be in that position is special.  And to be around him to see him tie the record, which I think we all know will be broken this year, it was just really special.  If you work a long time in this business, you're fortunate to be a part of historic moments.  Last year was one where you sit back and say, 'Wow, I was a part of that.  I was there for that.  That's pretty cool.'

Chargers.com:Where do you see him making the biggest impact this season?

McNulty: Well, you look at him, and even though he's been around so long, he's still Antonio Gates.  He's powerful.  He did a nice job blocking for us last year, which I think gets overlooked.  There were times we had to overplay him in that (area), but he responded.  He can still catch the ball when you need him.  Philip (Rivers) looks for him in those (clutch) situations.  It's still that when Antonio Gates walks onto the field, he changes the game.  He changes the defense.  You see the plans defensive coordinators have to account for him.  They're obviously worried about him.  You watch the defense and players align themselves to more or less try to take him away. So, he's still a guy who carries a lot of weight in this business.  Every time he goes on the field either two guys go to him and other guys have one-on-one (coverage). Or, if they don't, if they let him just run through the defense and he'll still do a lot of damage. They have to pick their poison.  He's also great for the other players because he is a good person who works hard and has a lot of football knowledge.  Antonio works hard to help other guys.  And not just the tight ends; he helps everyone. He's a great teammate and a great person.  Who knows how long he's going to go on playing for, but he is someone you appreciate every time he is on the field.

Chargers.com:A guy like Sean McGrath is someone who at the end of the year, you look up and realize he played all 16 games for you. He was in the league, took some time off and now he's been back for a couple seasons.  I'm not sure fans realize this, but he's one of the most popular guys in the locker room.  How would you describe the role he's carved out on this team?

McNulty: I think you said it best.  Sean's really carved out a niche on this team as a player and in the locker room.  He really appreciates (each) day he's here because he was out of the league for a little while, so every day he fights for his spot whether there is a threat or not.  He's available for us every day and played in every game, and he accepted his role.  He blocked really well for us.  But the guy has good ball skills.  He can really catch it, we just haven't used him in that vein.  He had a couple, but what we ask him to do is go up against the Von Millers and big defensive ends and just smash up against them over and over again in the game.  But Sean is a real fundamentally sound guy that plays 100-percent every play.  He gets the most out of his ability, and that helps us 25-30 snaps a game.  He really helped us last year, and he found his spot.

Chargers.com:Asante Cleveland latches on really well in the run game.  He split time between the active roster and practice squad last year.  What do you want to see out of Asante so he can cement a regular role on the 53-man roster?

McNulty: He's been exposed to a number of systems and players having already been with a number of pro teams after playing college at Miami. Asante has the ability to play the position.  He's got big, long arms and is very smart.  When he comes off the ball and gets his hands on you, you have trouble getting him off of you.  He can be quick and explosive coming off the ball, and he can catch the ball.  He has all the skills, now it's about finding out what his role will be.  He helped us out last year a couple times when guys got banged up.  He went in in critical times, and he responded well.  You look at that four-minute drive we had to win the game against at Tennessee.  The game was on the line and he was able to perform well.  He's been around a while and has a lot of poise, so the game is not too big for him.  I think it's just a matter of getting opportunities.  We've got a deep group.

Chargers.com:Jeff Cumberland was going to play a pretty big role for us last year before an Achilles injury in the preseason forced him to miss all of 2016.  How did he look on the field during OTAs?

McNulty: That's a long, hard rehab, especially for a guy who has been around a number of years, but he's looked really good.  For me, that shows how important football is to him.  How important it is to continue to play and be a positive contributor.  I think (during) his last couple years with the Jets, he didn't have an opportunity to do a whole lot.  Then he comes here and it looks like he'll finally get his chance, but then he gets hurt.  That can really derail a lot of guys, but he did a great job with the rehab.  He was out there making plays and showing up every day as a guy who can do damage in games.

Chargers.com:What do you see in the undrafted kid, Sean Culkin?

McNulty: He's going to have a chance.  Again, we have a lot of guys who can play, but the numbers always seem to work themselves out.  But Sean showed a lot of toughness playing in the SEC.  They played him a lot at fullback, and he had to go up against defensive ends and go ISO on linebackers.  He went up against really talented guys at LSU, Alabama and so on.  So, he's come up the hard way playing the position.  There wasn't a whole lot of glamour playing that spot with what they asked him to do at Missouri so he's shown a lot of toughness.  He had a lot of opportunities after the draft of teams trying to sign him.  We had a pre-draft visit with him and really liked him, and luckily, we were able to get him here.  We felt strongly he could potentially have a role here, and he has done a good job with it.  He's a grinder.  I think his main skills will show up when we're in pads. Right now, you see the fits and the fundamental play.  But whether he moves the guy off his spot or not, that will show up when we're in pads.

Chargers.com:I know you said the numbers work themselves out, but this is a very deep group.  Whether it's three, four or five tight ends we keep, there's going to be some great competition.  How does that impact the room when you have this many talented players fighting for a spot?

McNulty: The good thing is they understand it.  They get along great and are a really tight group.  Look at Antonio.  When you draft the player who is going to be your "successor", taken as high as we drafted Hunter, that can go either way.  Guys sometimes put a good face on but they don't always help.  That wasn't Antonio.  He helped tremendously with Hunter, and he's excited about having him because he can help us win.  So instead of impeding his progress, he's really helped him. And I think because they all started together outside Sean, they all started in the same spot.  They lived in the hotel together, studied together and did everything together. That helped, and it's rare that they are all still here.  We had good planning at the position.  Every guy at the position can really play at a high level in this league.  Our belief is they are all legitimate NFL tight ends.  How many we can take will work itself out.

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