As they walked off the practice field Wednesday afternoon following a hot, two-hour practice, Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen talked with second-year tight end Brandon Williams about when to break off routes against defensive backs who know what play is coming.
Olsen is coming off the two best receiving seasons by a Panthers tight end the past two years, but he looks to have help this year – even if the coaches are still sorting out who exactly will provide it.
The Panthers have six tight ends on their roster this spring, none of whom is a rookie.
Olsen hasn’t had a proven, pass-catching complement since Jeremy Shockey retired following the 2011 season. And while none of the other tight ends have a résumé like Shockey’s, Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes each offers enough that he plans on using a lot of two-tight end sets this season.
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“It’s a personnel group I believe in,” Rivera said Wednesday, “because it poses a lot of problems for your opponent.”
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton broke Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record in 2011, when he had two athletic tight ends to target in Shockey and Olsen, who came to Carolina in a trade with Chicago in the summer of ’11.
“You had Greg and Shockey in there – two of the better tight ends to ever play,” said Richie Brockel, a tight end/fullback in his fourth season with Carolina. “That’s a whole other dynamic coming at you. You have two more great receivers out there in those types of sets.”
After Gary Barnidge left for Cleveland last year, Ben Hartsock was the Panthers’ main No. 2 tight end. Hartsock, a free agent who remains unsigned, was one of the league’s best blocking tight ends but didn’t offer much to the passing attack.
The Panthers signed two tight ends in free agency – blocking specialist Mike McNeill and Ed Dickson, who caught 100 passes combined over the past three seasons with Baltimore.
Dickson said he’s just trying to fit in, but Olsen said Dickson’s experience as a receiver is impressive.
“He’s big. He’s athletic. He can catch the ball. He can run,” Olsen said. “You can never have too many of those guys.”
Williams remains the Panthers’ most intriguing tight end prospect. A former Oregon tight end who gave up football because of a neck injury in college, Williams was discovered at a regional scouting combine by the Panthers last year after playing a season of small-college basketball.
Williams spent much of his rookie season learning the offense. He played in nine games without making a catch, but Olsen marvels at his progress.
“He’s probably come as far as anybody on this team,” Olsen said. “I’m really happy for him because he’s a great kid. He wants to do well. He wants to learn. He works his (butt) off. Physically he has a lot of gifts that are hard to coach.”
As far as coaching, Dickson said Rivera is more laid back than Ravens coach John Harbaugh, whom Dickson described as “a little bit more in your face.”
But Dickson gets plenty of that from Panthers tight ends coach Pete Hoener.
“I love how he’s on us. He doesn’t care if you’re a veteran guy. If you’re doing it wrong, he’s going to be on you,” Dickson said. “That’s how it is sometimes. It’s kind of tough, it can get frustrating at times, but if it’s hard right now it’s going to be easy when the games come around.”
The Panthers’ other tight ends are Brockel, a versatile special teams mainstay who signed a two-year deal this offseason, and D.C. Jefferson, who was signed in January after Arizona waived him.
Rivera said he likes the confusion multiple-tight end sets can create for a defense.
“With an extra tight end in the game you can do so many different things, depending on who the tight end is,” Rivera said. “You can line him up as a fullback, as another wide receiver or as a wing tight end. It’s going to give us a lot more versatility on what we do.”
While they figure out who the second and third tight ends will be, there’s no confusion about the starter. Olsen caught 73 passes for 816 yards last season to become the first tight end to lead the Panthers in receiving since Wesley Walls in 1997.
At a position that has evolved into more of an extra wideout spot (see New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham’s franchise-tag grievance to be paid like a wide receiver), Olsen likes staying on the field and doing more than just catch passes.
“I take a lot of pride in playing every snap. There’s not a lot of guys throughout the league that do. I’ve been over 1,100 plays the last two seasons,” he said. “If they want to start taking my reps, I’m going to make it as hard as I can to give them up.”
Brockel said any success the Panthers have in two-tight end looks this season will start with the first tight end.
“That’s such a good package, especially when you’ve got a good athlete like Greg running around,” Brockel said. “We’ve got a lot of other good athletes to complement him. It just creates a whole other level for the defense to have to cover.”
Ben Weinrib contributed.