At various points Sunday against Arizona, Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen will line up in the backfield as an extra blocker, go out wide as a receiver and take his more customary three-point stance next to the tackle.
Olsen, a two-time Pro Bowler, talks often about all the “hats” he’s asked to wear in the Panthers’ offense.
But make no mistake, Olsen’s top hat is as a pass-catcher.
Olsen enters Sunday’s NFC Championship Game rematch ranked third in the NFL with 101.7 receiving yards a game, behind a pair of All-Pro wideouts – Atlanta’s Julio Jones (118.6 ypg) and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green (110.7 ypg).
Olsen was among the top three in total receiving yards before last week’s bye. He’s now seventh with 610 yards. The next closest tight end is Jimmy Graham, 21 spots back with 408 receiving yards.
Olsen isn’t sure he can hang with the wideouts for the receiving lead all season. But he’s on pace for one of the best receiving seasons by a tight end in NFL history.
During the final week of the 2011 regular season, New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Graham were both gunning for the single-season receiving record among tight ends. Gronkowski ended up with the record at 1,327 yards.
Through six games, Olsen is on pace for 1,627 yards.
“The yardage is great. Of course I want to catch a lot of passes and first downs. I take a lot of pride in all of those things,” Olsen said this week. “The biggest thing I take pride in here is there’s not just one, ‘Here’s what our tight end is asked to do.’ We can catch for possession. We also can lead the league in passes over 20 yards. ... We can be in the backfield in our run game.”
Olsen’s versatility is what most impresses Arizona coach Bruce Arians, who was asked this week what makes Olsen special.
“He blocks,” Arians said. “When you have a tight end who blocks in a running offense and can run down the stretch of the field, you have a special guy.”
“He’ll do the dirty work and then (offensive coordinator Mike) Shula does a good job of rewarding him and Cam Newton with a lot of passes because you do get that good, hard running action and he can get into the schemes and split you with his feet.
“He’s a unique guy.”
Reshaping the position
Olsen’s diverse skill set dates to his days at Wayne Hills High in northern New Jersey, where Olsen played for his dad. Chris Olsen won eight state titles at Wayne Hills and coached all three of his sons, as well as several of the sons of New York Giants assistant coaches.
Greg Olsen played running back until his sophomore season, when his dad noticed his team was thin at tight end. His middle son also had kind of outgrown the running back position.
“He was getting tall and long-legged and probably was not your typical running back body,” Chris Olsen said. “Tight end was becoming that vogue position in college and the NFL. You were starting to hear a lot about the tight end position.”
During Olsen’s senior season in 2002, Tony Gonzalez was just starting to reshape the position in Kansas City. Closer to home, Jeremy Shockey was catching 74 passes as a rookie tight end for the Giants.
Olsen also played defensive end, and was New Jersey’s Defensive Player of the Year as a senior when he finished with 87 tackles and 15 sacks.
And while former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer talked about letting Olsen play both ways, a Nebraska recruiter helped convince Chris Olsen his son’s future was at tight end.
“There’s a lot of defensive end-type people in the NFL,” Chris Olsen remembers the Cornhuskers coach saying. “But when you find someone with a defensive end type of build and ability that can catch the ball, you’ve got to make him a tight end.”
Golden age of tight ends
Olsen followed his older brother, also named Chris, to Notre Dame. But after the fallout from the George O’Leary resume scandal, Olsen left South Bend before attending a class.
He landed at Miami, where his recruiter had told Olsen if he ever had a change of heart he could contact the Hurricanes. That coach was Rob Chudzinski, Carolina’s offensive coordinator in 2011 when the Panthers traded for Olsen in a deal with Chicago.
Olsen had only 45 catches his first season in Charlotte while sharing the ball with Shockey, who retired following the season.
Olsen’s catch total increased each of the next three seasons, culminating with his first Pro Bowl appearance in 2014. That was a year after Gonzalez retired with the Falcons, freeing up a spot in a conference that also featured Graham and the Cowboys’ Jason Witten.
“As I was coming up in this league, it was kind of the golden age of tight ends. I was always in the NFC with a couple of Hall of Famers. It was really hard to break through on them,” Olsen said.
But Olsen eventually did break through. He earned his second Pro Bowl berth last season while becoming only the seventh tight end in NFL history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
“I don’t think I’m that much better now than I was five years ago. There’s a lot that goes into it – comfort, familiarity, rapport with your quarterback,” said Olsen, who arrived in Carolina the same year as Cam Newton.
“Cam and I have played a lot of snaps together,” Olsen said. “He trusts me. I trust him.”
Keep thinking he’s not fast
Olsen has a knack for finding the holes in zone coverage, but is fast enough to get behind defenders in man coverage, as well.
Olsen, 31, ran the 100-yard dash in high school and seemed surprised to learn that some critics have questioned his speed.
“I hope people keep thinking that because I guess that’s why I keep getting open. People need to get their info straight,” he said. “I feel like I can still at this point in my career run as good as anybody. ... What my 40-yard dash is, I don’t know. But I feel like I can play fast play-in and play-out.”
As Arians said, the Panthers’ commitment to the running game has helped Olsen create space on play-action passes. But Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert said Olsen would thrive in virtually any system.
“He’s just a talented player. He seems to get open and catches everything that comes his way,” Tolbert said. “I don’t think it’s a scheme thing. I think it’s a player thing, and he’s that guy.”
‘A very difficult guy to prepare for’
Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals’ Pro Bowl cornerback, probably won’t be matched against Olsen too often Sunday. But with Olsen, Peterson says you never know.
“I don’t know what to call him – a tight end (or) a receiver,” Peterson said. “He’s in the backfield sometimes, not that they’re handing him the ball. But they put him everywhere. You can tell when they need a play, they’re going (to him). ... He’s a very difficult guy to prepare for.”
Olsen likes that the Panthers’ tight ends are asked to stay in and pass block occasionally and serve as fullback-type blockers at times.
“Not all of them you do exceptional,” he said. “But you take a lot of pride in doing them all play after play.”
And while it’s cool for Olsen to see his name listed among the league’s best wideouts in the stats, there’s a reason no tight end has ever led the NFL in receiving yards. (Several have led the league in catches, including Kellen Winslow twice, Todd Christensen twice, and Gonzalez.
“I think that’d be hard. Some of those offenses that really throw the ball a lot, the receiver positions, those guys seem to get their yards every week,” Olsen said. “I’ve had a good run this year and most years. But it’s hard to predict how games work out. Sometimes the nature of playing tight end, some games don’t require as much in the passing game and the way certain games develop it’s more run-heavy.
“We’re not going to drop back and throw the ball 50 times a game like some of these other teams. I’m going to try to catch as many yards as I can every game and whatever plays are out there, try to I make them.”
Most receiving yards by a tight end
Top NFL receiving seasons by a tight end: