CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Greg Olsen is hoping he can be as productive as Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes Olsen could be poised for a breakout season not having to share catches with Jeremy Shockey, now a free agent, and with the arrival of new fullback Mike Tolbert, who should lighten Olsen’s load as a blocker.
In fact, Rivera believes “it’s possible” Olsen could put up numbers similar to what Gronkowski and Graham did last season.
And that’s saying something.
Gronkowski turned in a great season a year ago catching 90 passes for 1,327 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns for the AFC champion New England Patriots [team stats]. Graham had 99 catches for 1,310 yards receiving and 11 scores for the division rival New Orleans Saints.
You’d have to scan a bit further down the list of league leaders — OK, way down — to find Olsen’s name.
He finished his first season in Carolina (No. 20 in the AP Pro 32) with 45 catches for 540 yards receiving and five touchdowns.
However, when you begin to factor in Shockey’s numbers — 37 receptions for 455 yards receiving and four touchdowns — it begins to put the Panthers in the same ballpark with the Patriots and Saints when it comes to overall tight end production.
With Shockey not likely to return, Rivera expects more balls will be thrown Olsen’s way.
“This will be his first real opportunity with us to step up and be the starting tight end and be the guy,” Rivera said. “You watch him catch footballs and you watch him run routes and you see those traits that say you can fit right into that group. We’re excited about it.”
Good enough to challenge Gronkowski and Graham?
“It’s possible,” Rivera said. “We spread the ball around so much in this offense, but I really think it’s possible for a guy to have big games and put quite a few of them together and have some big numbers.”
Rivera said Olsen has a tremendous rapport with quarterback Cam Newton and works extremely hard.
“I think he’s a tremendous target,” Rivera said. “I think the chance of him stepping up and being right in the elite group of players at his position I think that’s possible. I really do.”
Olsen also has something else working to his advantage — offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, a former tight ends coach who loves utilizing that position in the passing game.
Just look at what he did for Antonio Gates in San Diego and Kellen Winslow Jr. in Cleveland.
As you might expect all of this talk of more passes thrown his way is music to Olsen’s ears.
He is, after all, a receiver by nature.
Catching the football is what he does best.
And he feels if given the chance he can finish among the league leaders in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.
“In terms of physically running, catching and doing all of things, I don’t think there’s a lot of guys in the league who do those things better than I do,” Olsen said. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of different circumstances dictate different results.”
At the same time Olsen isn’t a selfish player.
He doesn’t measure his success by personal statistics.
“I’ve had some seasons where I caught a lot of balls and I looked back and realized I didn’t play all that well overall, and I’ve had others where I caught 40 balls and felt like I played well around,” Olsen said. “I’ve never been one to try to let stats dictate what I bring to the team. But obviously production is what you’re judged on.”
Olsen’s most productive season came in 2009 when he had 612 yards receiving on 60 receptions and eight touchdowns for the Chicago Bears.
While it looked as if he was on the verge of becoming a breakout player in the league, the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike Martz in 2010 changed how the Bears utilized the tight end position.
Olsen spent the majority of his final two seasons with the Bears used more in blocking situations. The Bears traded him away for a third-round draft pick last summer.
Carolina’s plan is to play to Olsen’s strengths.
Olsen said based on the plays the team is running in practice and in preseason games he’ll have an opportunity to put up quality numbers.
“I think so and that’s always been my strength is catching the ball,” Olsen said.