SPARTANBURG — Standing in front of his locker late last season, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen looked over the NFL statistics and marveled at the numbers being put up by tight ends Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski.
Olsen noted that, taken together, the receiving totals posted by him and Jeremy Shockey would have placed them fairly high on the list.
With Shockey waiting in limbo as an unsigned free agent, Olsen is poised to take his place among the best pass-catching tight ends in the league.
Except in the Panthers’ offense, Olsen does more than catch passes.
“The world we live in is production-based. That’s fair. And those guys are special guys, don’t get me wrong,” Olsen said Monday. “What Gronkowski and Graham have been able to do in two years – those are the two guys you hear a lot about, deservedly so. They’ve played well. They’ve been very productive. And at the end of the day that’s what you get judged on.
“But I feel on a play-to-play basis with what we’re asked to do, there’s not a lot of guys in the league that get asked to do what we do. From run routes, then the next play you’re at fullback, then you’re pass-blocking, then you’re in the backfield picking up blitzes, then you’re playing receiver again.”
Gronkowski and Graham ripped up the record books in 2011 in their second seasons. Gronkowski, a second-round pick of New England, caught 90 passes for 1,327 yards and a league-leading 17 touchdown receptions. His receiving yards were the most by a tight end in league history.
Graham, a former Miami basketball player drafted by New Orleans in the third round, was just as potent in the Saints’ offense. Graham’s 99 catches were the most by a tight end, and his 1,310 receiving yards would have been if not for Gronkowski.
“When you look at guys like Gronkowski and watch them, they’re not just stat players. He does a lot. He blocks. He really is an all-around player. Same thing as (the Cowboys’ Jason) Witten,” Olsen said. “But the thing that draws the attention is the stats. And last year, me and Jeremy combined were right up there. If we were one person, we would have been right up there.”
Olsen and Shockey combined for 82 catches and 995 yards, which would have ranked third behind Gronkowski and Graham. The catches were split fairly evenly: Olsen had 45 catches for 540 yards; Shockey 37 for 455.
“That system worked for us last year. And we were very productive at it. Neither one of us took it as a knock,” Olsen said. “We knew that neither one as an individual were going to get a lot of recognition. But I’m not a big attention guy.”
Olsen’s father was his high school coach in Wayne, N.J. As the son of a coach, he enjoys the nuances of the game, and says he gets as much satisfaction picking up a back-side blitz as he does pulling down a long pass.
Panthers second-year receiver Kealoha Pilares said Olsen knows where everyone is supposed to line up every play.
“That guy approaches every day like it’s work. I always look at him and Steve (Smith) and just how they approach every day at practice. Those are the guys who are always looking to forward to getting better,” Pilares said. “If I ever don’t know what I’m doing I just go ask (Olsen). He’s a really intelligent guy who knows what’s going on.”
The Panthers acquired Olsen last summer in a trade with Chicago, where Olsen played behind Desmond Clark his first two years. Olsen, 27, caught a career-high 60 passes for 612 yards in 2009, but his role diminished the following season when Mike Martz became the Bears’ offensive coordinator.
With the Panthers decision not to bring back Shockey, Olsen should be one of Cam Newton’s top targets in the NFL’s fifth-ranked offense last season. Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes Olsen is in the same class as Gronkowski and Graham.
“I think he can be right in there with them,” Rivera said. “This will be his first real opportunity to step up and be the guy. You watch him catch footballs, you watch him run routes and you see those traits that he can fit right into that group.”