Antonio Gates will again be a difficult guy to project next year. Is he old? By football standards, maybe. He’ll turn 33 next month. But Jason Witten isn’t too far behind, as he just celebrated his 31st birthday, and the everlasting Tony Gonzalez is 37. Both of those guys were pretty good last year, combining for 1,969 receiving yards.

Merely saying Gates is old becomes an exercise of reaching for the lowest possible branch on the fantasy football tree o’ scare tactics. The reasons for his plummeting stock over the past few years go beyond that.

Gates’ 2013 fate is out of his hands to an extent, as his production ceiling and potential to be a bargain late-ish round pick are tied to one man.

His name is Philip Rivers, and he’s terrible. But a return to being ever OK could mean profitable times lie ahead again.

We’re thinking wishful thoughts right now, but the foundation is there. Mike McCoy is the new head coach in San Diego, and he’s the former Broncos offensive coordinator who brought Peyton Manning along slowly following his multiple neck procedures, and he’s responsible for making something of relevance from Tim Tebow two years ago. Damn you, McCoy.

He’s known as a quarterback guru, and he also held the title of quarterback coach for a time in Denver, a role he didn’t truly ever shed. Which is good, because we need Rivers…because we need Gates. Or maybe that should be the opposite way around. I’m not really sure it matters, as either way if Rivers is clicking, many nice crooked numbers will be posted.

Last year, Gates finished 12th in fantasy points among tight ends with just 89, well behind first place Jimmy Graham (144). To get an idea of Gates’ production tier, he was in the same territory as Scott Chandler and Vernon Davis. Not awful, just a whole lot of meh while averaging 5.9 points per game.

Yet a year ago around this time, we didn’t anticipate that blah output. Most of us had Gates ranked much higher on our draft boards. In fact, he was ranked far too high, as Gates finished with an average draft position of third among tight ends.

That’s a steep gap between where he was drafted, and where he finished. His 538 receiving yards in 2012 were his lowest total since his rookie year. Same with his 49 receptions, and same with his 35.9 yards per game. What became especially discouraging was his lack of deep connecting with Rivers, as Gates recorded five games with 25 yards or less.

Back to Rivers then, our nemesis in this tale of sorrow. Gates’ targets weren’t lacking in 2012 after he had 80, and he finished 2011 with 88. It’s what he did — or didn’t do — with those targets that’s troubling. Despite playing in two fewer games, Gates had 240 more yards in 2011. What gives?

Rivers gives. Sure, Gates may be doing that natural human thing that athletes do and slowing a little with age, but Rivers’ decline in plays that generate chunky yardage was downright haunting. In 2011 he completed a career high 69 passes for 20 yards or more, and number which then fell to just 41.

Gates is at his best when he’s getting balls deep down the seam. His best year for +20 yard catches came in 2009 when he finished with 18 (that was also his best year for overall yardage, with 1,157 yards). How many did he record this past season? Five. Dammit, fave.

McCoy has said glowing words about Rivers so far during offseason workouts, saying that he’s progressing well and learning the new system quickly. If we operate under the shaky assumption that the QB guru then keeps doing his guru thing and Rivers returns to being, say, somewhere around the 15th best fantasy quarterback instead of 21st, then there’s already strong signs Gates could return some fine value in 2013.

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Gates’ current average draft position in mocks is 98th overall, late in the ninth round as he barely stays in the top 100. That’s a nice discount for a player who could easily post top 10 production at his position, as he did just a year ago even when Rivers was already beginning his spiral (119 fantasy points in 2011).

Keenan Allen has been added through the draft to help Rivers, and Danario Alexander should continue to grow. Make it happen, McCoy. Fix this shattered man.