Greg Olsen is the X-factor in Panthers' passing game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen lined up wide left on the first play of team drills on Monday. He moved into the slot on the right side on the next. He lined up tight to the line of scrimmage a few plays later.

Much has been made of the Panthers losing wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for the season with a torn ACL.

A bigger loss would be Olsen.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, receivers and tight ends made up 87 percent of Carolina’s total targets last season. That was the third-highest rate in the NFL even though the Panthers had only six games where individual receivers and tight ends were targeted 10 times in a game in 2014.

But if you take the tight ends out of the equation, specifically Olsen, the ranking falls to 17th.

In other words, Olsen is the most valuable piece of the Carolina passing game.

That was magnified in Saturday night’s 31-30 preseason win over Miami. Newton completed four passes, with three going to Olsen for 27 yards.

“Every time he lines up, the defense has to know where he is," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “If they account for him with one guy, then we’ve got to take advantage of that. If they account for him with two guys, obviously that’s going to give other guys opportunities."

Since 2011, when Newton was the top pick of the draft, Olsen has been targeted 415 times. That’s the third-most of any tight end behind Jimmy Graham (548) and Jason Witten (457).

Olsen has led Carolina in receptions the past two seasons, including a career-high 84 catches for 1,008 yards last season.

He’s averaged 67 catches and 801 yards a year since 2011, and needs 54 catches and 696 yards to pass Wesley Walls for the most by a tight end in Carolina history. Walls had 324 catches for 3,902 yards from 1996-2002.

So as valuable as Benjamin was to Newton and the offense, Olsen is more valuable.

Does that mean Olsen is in store to break more of his personal records? Not necessarily.

“Sometimes it’s a double-edged sword," Olsen said. “Having talented guys on the outside makes life easy sometimes. Of course, they get their targets, but they make life easier."

Newton tried to spread the ball around early against Miami. Corey Brown was targeted three times deep. He dropped one.

Newton connected with Ted Ginn Jr. for a 15-yard pickup on the third series.

But the offense didn’t take off until Newton went to Olsen three times on five plays.

Still, Olsen reminds that others have to step up for him or anybody to be effective just like Benjamin did last season.

“You can’t go in with just the one-man trying to focus [mentality]," he said.

Whether that means more two tight-end sets with Olsen and Ed Dickson or the emergence of rookie Devin Funchess remains to be seen.

All Olsen knows is that the Panthers have to spread the ball around.

“You’ve got a big guy like Kelvin back there, he can do a lot of things one-one-one being so big and physical and just going for the ball," Olsen said. “It’s hard to replace guys like that, but I feel confident in a lot of the guys we have at that position."

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