Greg Olsen last season became the first Panthers tight end to lead the team in receiving since 1997 – and that was before the team held a fire sale at the wide receiver position.
Coming off the two most prolific receiving seasons by a Panthers tight end, Olsen has as much to gain as anyone following general manager Dave Gettleman’s tear-down and rebuild of the wide receiver corps.
And while Olsen said last week he’s always thrived when given more opportunities to catch the ball, he’s not ready to sound the alarm the way many Panthers fans – and at least one of his teammates – have.
“I know everyone at one point was kind of panicking. Would it have been nice to have those (receivers) back? Of course,” Olsen said at a screening of the movie “Draft Day.”
“But I think we’ve signed a lot of guys that can fill a lot of those roles,” Olsen added. “We’re putting it together. It’s hard to judge a team in March. When the season gets closer, that will be a better example of what our team is.”
Running back DeAngelo Williams said he was “still in shock” after the series of events that saw the Panthers release franchise receiving leader Steve Smith and lose wideouts Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon via free agency during a three-day stretch in March.
“I joked with people that my fantasy value went up after we got rid of our four receivers, but it’s the truth,” Williams said last week during an appearance on the NFL Network’s “NFL AM” show. “I went from probably being drafted in the fifth and sixth round to being in the first round – me and Jonathan (Stewart) alike because we have no receivers.”
The Panthers have begun to replenish the wideout position, but the tight ends and running backs figure to be featured prominently in 2014 – as they were in Mike Shula’s first season as offensive coordinator.
Shula is said to want to use more “12” personnel this year – one back, two tight ends and two receivers.
Fourth-year quarterback Cam Newton seems most comfortable running two-tight end sets. During his rookie season, when he passed for 4,051 yards to break Peyton Manning’s rookie record (since broken by Andrew Luck), Newton had the luxury of throwing to two pass-catching tight ends in Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.
The past two seasons Olsen hasn’t had a wing man.
But the Panthers added a potential No. 2 tight end last week when they signed Ed Dickson, who caught 54 passes three seasons ago in Baltimore. They previously re-signed fullback/tight end Richie Brockel and acquired blocking tight end Mike McNeill.
And then there’s the tight end/basketball forward/bodybuilder whom Newton calls ‘Swole Bones’ – Brandon Williams, the former Oregon tight end and small-college basketball player who remains something of a project.
But all that tight end inventory and well-paid running back depth won’t matter much if the Panthers don’t have wideouts consistently catching passes and stretching the field vertically – as Williams noted on his NFL Network appearance.
Williams’ concern isn’t necessarily the quality of the new receivers, but the fact they won’t get any work with Newton until training camp, when Newton is scheduled to return from ankle surgery.
“I just don’t want to see eight, nine guys in the box week in and week out because we’re working on our timing,” he said.
Olsen said it was tough to watch Smith go – as both a teammate and friend (the two remain neighbors). But he’s eager to see what Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood bring to the offense as well as the locker room.
Williams, the franchise’s all-time rushing leader, was asked whether the receiver shakeup puts more pressure on him.
“No, it puts more pressure on the front office because you make these moves and getting rid of our four receivers and then you have to bring in guys,” Williams told NFL Network. “Not saying that they’re no-name guys, but our guys made their name all on themselves.”
But Olsen said Gettleman made a name for himself last year by taking other teams’ castoffs and turning them into starters and contributors on a 12-win, playoff team.
“There is a plan. We have to trust in that,” Olsen said. “Mr. Gettleman’s done an awesome job since he’s gotten here in a short time putting pieces in place to fill holes. And doing so with guys other people maybe overlooked. Last year a lot of the guys that came in were in that type of situation and were huge parts of our team.”