Written By Eric D. Williams ESPN Staff Writer
COSTA MESA, Calif. - With a chiseled physique and the last name Green, Los Angeles Chargers tight end Virgil Green adopted the nickname the Incredible Hulk back in his college days at Nevada.
Teammates dubbed fellow Chargers tight end Sean Culkin Thor because of his flowing, blond locks.
Just like their comic-book heroes, Green and Culkin seek to create a new dynamic duo at the tight-end position for the Chargers.
"Yeah, the Hulk and Thor connection," Green said, laughing. "[Culkin] is a good dude -- a very smart and very bright guy. He wants to know everything and they ask a lot of him.
"He reminds me a lot of myself when I was younger and what was asked of me in terms of playing special teams, knowing the F [H-back] position and playing fullback. I think he has a lot of potential, and should make a lot of plays this year as well."
The two have big shoes to fill. The Chargers are in need of production from the tight-end position with Hunter Henry out due to a torn ACL knee injury and Antonio Gates still not on the roster. Gates, with whom the Chargers have been in talks this month, and Henry combined for 75 receptions for 895 yards and seven touchdowns last season, one of the most productive tight-end tandems in the NFL in 2017.
And so it falls to a new cast of characters. Despite being new to the team after spending his first seven NFL seasons with Denver, Green said he's already comfortable with his role in the offense and with quarterback Philip Rivers.
"I know what's expected, and when you have a quarterback like Phil that knows exactly what he wants, it's different than when you have a quarterback that's just in the system," Green said. "This is kind of his system. He's kind grown this system into what it is today, and when you have a quarterback like that, and he can tell you exactly what he wants, everything gets ingrained in your mind."
Culkin's long hair and No. 80 jersey also earned him another nickname, with Gates last season anointing the rookie Baby Shockey -- homage to former New York Giants and University of Miami tight end Jeremy Shockey.
Entering his second season with the Chargers, and now that Gates (for the time being) is not with the team, Culkin is trying to grow into that nickname and help fill the void left by the future Hall of Famer's absence.
"I was No. 80, and we're similar -- I don't want to say we're similar players because he was a great player -- but there's some things that [Gates] saw [in Shockey] that he would see in me," Culkin said about his nickname. "And of course I've got the hair and everything, so he'd call me 'Baby Shockey.' So it's a great compliment."
Culkin made the Chargers' final roster as an undrafted rookie out of Missouri last season and saw time in the opener against the Denver Broncos, playing 11 snaps. Culkin remained on the active roster but was a healthy scratch for 14 other games and did not record a catch in 2017. Although he did not play much, Culkin said last season was a valuable in terms of growth and getting comfortable in the Chargers' offensive system.
"With this being Year 2, things start to slow down a little bit," Culkin said. "You start to know the offense a lot better. What they ask from the tight ends is a lot -- there's a lot of spots where you can move around.
"Once you have it down, you can focus more on making plays."
Through two preseason games, Culkin has played 62 snaps on offense, totaling two catches for 24 yards on three targets.
Green, who signed a three-year, $8.4 million deal in free agency, remains the team's No. 1 tight end. But the Chargers added Green because of his run-blocking prowess, not for his pass-catching.
"My way is hard-nosed, physical football," said Green, who did catch 14 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown last season. "I'm going to get it in the mud first before I get it anywhere else."
That leaves Culkin as a possibility to develop into a reliable target in the passing game. So far, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said he likes what he's seen.
"He didn't have a lot of flash plays against the Seahawks, but he was consistent and that is what we needed to see," Whisenhunt said of Culkin's performance in the Chargers' second preseason game.
"When you got a guy like Hunter and you compare your tight ends to Antonio and Hunter, sometimes it gets hard -- especially for a young guy, because those guys are so talented.
"Sean has done really well as far as coming along as a tight end. From where he was last Seattle game [in the 2017 preseason] to this Seattle game, it is a huge difference from where he was and that is exactly what he needed to do. This will be a good test for him this week [against the New Orleans Saints]. The Saints do a lot of different things, but he is definitely trending in the right direction."
While Culkin and Green have showed they can be contributors in the offense, the Chargers have not ruled out a possible return by Gates.
Culkin said he occasionally would text back and forth with Gates during the offseason. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said the door has not been shut on the 38-year-old returning to the team.
"I know we're talking, but I'm really focused on the guys that are here," Lynn said. "I'd love to have him, but I don't know where they're at with that right now."
Added Rivers: "I don't know if they're still talking or not, but obviously again, if he's here one of these days in the next three weeks it would be great. I don't think it needs to be real soon. If there's one guy that would know what to do, it would be him."