Inside the Panthers

ESPN’s Trent Dilfer: Gap between Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham ‘a chasm’

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) compared to Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham? There’s no comparison, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer says.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) compared to Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham? There’s no comparison, ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer says. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Trent Dilfer called to discuss topics related to the Monday night matchup between Carolina and Indianapolis. But after 15 minutes talking about Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula, Dilfer had something else he wanted to get off his chest.

Dilfer, the former Tampa Bay quarterback and current ESPN analyst, thinks Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is a special talent. And Seattle tight end Jimmy Graham, who’s been to two more Pro Bowls than Olsen?

Dilfer says he’s not in Olsen’s league.

“I think the gap between (Olsen) and Jimmy Graham is a chasm, not a gap,” Dilfer said Thursday.

While Pro Football Focus views Olsen as the league’s worst run-blocking tight end, Dilfer believes Olsen’s blocking is better than Graham’s.

“The Seahawks running the football with Graham on the field are pathetic. Brutal. With him off the field, they’re dynamic,” Dilfer said. “Greg Olsen’s playing 90 percent of the snaps and they’re leading the league in rushing. And he’s a dynamic receiver.”

Olsen, who went to his first Pro Bowl last season, is third among tight ends (trailing Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski and former Panther Gary Barnidge) with an average of 73.2 receiving yards a game.

Graham is 12th among tight ends at 53.6.

Dilfer says the 6-foot-7 Graham thrived in the Saints’ offense because of Sean Payton’s ability to get him in isolation matchups. He says Graham also caught a lot of passes against soft zones “where anybody can get open.”

Dilfer doesn’t think Graham is a bad player. But he thinks it’s time Olsen received his due.

“This guy’s one of the most underappreciated players in football,” Dilfer said. “He is amazing.”

Dilfer, part of ESPN’s coverage team for the Panthers-Colts game, shared his thoughts on non-Olsen matters as well, including:

Cam Newton: My perception going into my study this morning was Cam had made a lot of big throws, but it was still the same old frenetic, run-around-shed-guys-off scramble for a first down, throw on the run, broken play, like that was how they were making their hay. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.

They’re down 20-7 to Seattle in the third and 95 percent of their production in that comeback is high-level quarterbacking from Cam in the pocket. Like high, high level. Not just, OK, throw here or there. I mean precision type stuff, graduate-level type stuff. Looking guys off, pump-faking, on rhythm.

He throws a comeback early for a big first down. He throws a dig route at the end of the fourth quarter where he looks off the safety and Mike linebacker in the middle of the field on second-and-19 and rips it in there early to get 18 yards and put them in a third-and-1. And then the third-and-1 play he sticks it on (Jerricho Cotchery’s) chest being blanketed in coverage.

He hits Olsen three times in tight coverage. He throws a corner route early. He reads blitz and hits the crossing route. I was blown away. I was like, boy was I wrong. I was glad. I don’t mind being wrong. It’s big-time.

Josh Norman: He has tremendous ball skills. He plays with physical confidence. He doesn’t let the cushion increase because of fear. He lets the cushion get close and plays close coverage because he has so much confidence in his physicality, his length.

I don’t know what he runs. He runs fast enough, obviously. But I think he understands spatial awareness. He understands his length. He obviously understands his ball skills. So he’s never intimated by a route because he trusts himself so much.

Whether the Panthers are merely good or could be special: I think they are a very good team after seven games and I think they will be a good team come the playoffs. When you are multi-dimensional you are much harder to game-plan for and you get more free plays in the course of a game. Open receivers, you can create offense.

When you lack dimensions you become easier to game-plan for and everything becomes harder, so everything you get you have to earn a little bit more. And I think that’s (the Panthers’) limiting factor, that they lack dimensions offensively. So I don’t think you can be special when you lack that many dimensions.

Their defense is very substantive. It’s very fundamentally sound. It has enough dynamic players on it to be really good. Even as they get healthier as the year goes on and some of these guys get better, I still don’t know if it has elite potential as a defense.

The Monday night matchup: Well, on paper you can title it, Lay the Points (the Panthers are a touchdown favorite). It’s a total mismatch on paper because you always start at the line of scrimmage. And the line of scrimmage should just be a maul-fest. Carolina seriously should just maul them.

The other thing Indy doesn’t have enough physicality on defense to stop Cam. I don’t think they can tackle him. I don’t think they can sack him. He’s going to look like a giant. He’s going to be as big as their biggest defensive player. So on paper it just looks like lay the points. But the big but here is – I think Andrew Luck is one of the greatest talents in the NFL. I would put him as a top-10 NFL player, playing as bad a football as you can possibly imagine him playing.

Players typically go back to their mean. The scary thing about this game is the Colts have a phenomenal, talented quarterback. They have tons of offensive explosion. If somehow they can block, it could be six plays. The Panthers can dominate this game for 60 plays and lose six of them, and lose a game.

Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula: I think Mike Shula’s a tremendous human being. He’s one of the really good guys in the NFL. When I had him (at Tampa Bay) – Mike and I have talked about this – I felt like he was out over his skis, as was I. For our whole time in Tampa Bay it was feeling it out. It was remedial offense.

But by no means do I think Mike’s a bad coach because of it. I just think that I didn’t get Mike at his best. I think Cam’s getting him at his best.

Shula’s biggest leap as a coordinator: Formations and adjusting to his personnel. All great coordinators adjust to their personnel. You build your offense around your personnel. In Tampa we tried to fit a square peg into a round hole. We had little people on offense. Warrrick Dunn, Reidel Anthony, Jacquez Green. Mike Alstott was our most physical offensive player. And we tried to play big-boy ball with some small people.

I think what he’s done in Carolina that’s really admirable is one, he’s just learned so much more football. Being around (Rob Chudzinski) and being around all the people he’s been around, I think he just has a deeper catalog of football expertise. And he’s still true to himself. He’s a run-first, play-action guy, which is great. There’s no criticism there, that’s just who he is.

But he’s done it in a kind of new-age way. They use spread formation. They use multiple personnel groupings. They shift and motion. They’re so creative with how they line Olsen up, it’s amazing.

And he’s adapted to his zone running game with the zone-read threat. And they do it a lot of different ways. ... I think the teams that win run the ball and play-action well. I’m jealous I didn’t have this Mike Shula because this Mike Shula is really, really good.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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