When Cam Newton won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2011, it was due in part to the Panthers employing two tight end sets that presented matchup problems for defenses.
Now with Kelvin Benjamin out for the season with a torn ACL, Newton and the Panthers could revert back to what worked so well four years ago.
Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen and No. 2 tight end Ed Dickson may share the field this season more than originally planned as the Panthers try to figure out their offense’s life after Benjamin for 2015. The Panthers host the Miami Dolphins at 7 p.m. Saturday in a preseason game.
“Yeah we’ll see. I think that gives us some good flexibility, some big bodies that can fill in and can run and do some different things,” Olsen said Thursday after practice. “Ed had a good camp. After getting over that groin (injury) he really had a good camp. He can do a lot for us and we’re all going to have to step up.”
A day after Benjamin’s season-ending injury, the Panthers were already working Dickson in more with the first-team offense. He caught several passes Thursday as it appeared the Panthers’ first option at replacing Benjamin’s production is to use more two tight end sets.
Carolina used that system, along with the zone read, in Newton’s rookie season to simplify the game for the quarterback. Olsen teamed with Jeremy Shockey as the two combined for 82 catches for 995 yards and nine touchdowns.
Shockey left and Olsen remained, but the Panthers didn’t find a second tight end until 2014 when they signed Ed Dickson as a free agent after four years with the Ravens. There was promise of a return to the 2011 system, but that failed early with a rash of injuries to Carolina’s backfield.
Fullback Mike Tolbert went on short-term injured reserve and his backup, Richie Brockel, was already on the IR. That meant Dickson had to get off the line of scrimmage and into the backfield as he played more of a blocking role for Carolina’s rushers.
“Injuries, you never want to see that happen,” Dickson said last week. “But if someone goes down it’s up to those 52 guys to pull together and do whatever’s best for the team to win and that’s what I did last year. In order for us to get back to what we needed to do, I had to play another position and that’s what I did.”
Dickson had his least productive season in his five-year career last year, catching just 10 passes for 115 yards and one touchdown. He had nine games in which he had no catches.
Olsen, meanwhile, enjoyed his best season yet. He caught a team-high 84 passes for 1,008 yards (tying Benjamin) and six touchdowns.
So with Benjamin done for the year, it’s logical that Olsen could see more passes his way as Carolina’s top target.
“Sometimes it’s a double-edged sword,” Olsen said. “Having those guys on the outside makes life easy sometimes and they get their targets. They make life a lot easier.
“You can’t go in with a one-man focus. I think that’s been one of our strengths over the last couple of years and that’s why particular guys have had success.”
Last year, Olsen and Dickson accounted for about 30 percent of Carolina’s receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. It could be even more now.
Rookie receiver Devin Funchess is still learning the X receiver position — where Benjamin played — and has been battling a hamstring injury. Corey Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. are speedsters but don’t offer top-target abilities. Jerricho Cotchery is a possession receiver and Brenton Bersin and Jarrett Boykin are No. 4 receivers.
Along with Olsen and Dickson, the Panthers have Richie Brockel and Brandon Williams at tight end. Brockel is more of a blocker, though he’s caught several passes throughout camp, and Williams has battled a groin injury all camp but is expected to return to practice Monday.
Olsen still believes all the Panthers’ goals are attainable even without Benjamin. Someone has to take advantage of the opportunity, and it may come from the tight end group.
“Of course he’s as talented a guy as there is and he’s a huge part of what we do, but again this is the ultimate team sport,” Olsen said. “We’ve got to have guys step up. It’s the unfortunate aspect of football. Guys are going to get hurt. You hope it doesn’t happen but it’s inevitable and you’ve got to find a way for guys to step up and fill in that void and presence.”