CHARLOTTE — While veteran tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. tries out this week at the New York Jets’ minicamp, the Carolina Panthers have yet to sign anyone to replace No. 2 receiving tight end Gary Barnidge.
But starting tight end Greg Olsen, coming off a career year, says the Panthers are good at the position.
Olsen was better than that in 2012, establishing career highs with 69 catches for 843 yards. And though Barnidge followed former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to Cleveland, Olsen doesn’t see a void when he looks around the tight end meeting room.
“I think we’ve had as good an offseason as any group of guys that I’ve been around,” Olsen said Tuesday after a walkthrough on the first day of the team’s three-day minicamp.
Olsen proved last season he doesn’t need a lot of help. After the Panthers chose not to re-sign Jeremy Shockey following the 2011 season, Olsen was excited about the chance to be a featured receiver.
Olsen, who came to Carolina in a trade with Chicago two years ago, broke Wesley Walls’ marks for the most prolific season by a Panthers tight end, gaining 843 yards on 69 catches. Olsen’s receiving yardage ranked fourth among NFL tight ends, trailing Dallas’ Jason Witten, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez.
“It was nice to finally get a lot more opportunities, like a lot of the other guys throughout the league get,” Olsen said. “I think I showed that I can do as much, if not more, than anybody in the league, especially with the way our offense is here. We don’t get substituted out on run plays. We don’t get substituted out on pass-blocking. If there’s 75 snaps, I played 75 snaps. Whatever that job entailed, I had to do it.”
Since entering the league in 2007 as the Bears’ first-round draft choice, Olsen ranks among the top 10 players at his position in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
Yet, Olsen has never been selected to a Pro Bowl and is seldom included in discussions about the league’s premiere tight ends.
“I say it to guys a lot. You don’t have to go out and seek attention. By the team winning, attention ends up finding you,” Olsen said. “And if you look around the league, the so-called marquee guys that everyone talks about, obviously their individual play is pretty good. But you look at their team, they’re in the playoffs. They’re competing for division titles. They’re competing every year making a run at the playoffs.
“I don’t get too worked up. I see all that stuff on the NFL Network about top (tight ends). And I take note of all that. But I wouldn’t trade myself for anybody.”
Olsen, 28, is starting to gain recognition. Last season he made USA Today’s All-Joe team, comprised of unsung players who have never been chosen to a Pro Bowl.
Olsen’s teammates don’t overlook him.
“I love the guy,” defensive end Greg Hardy said. “He’s hard to cover. He’s a good blocker. I’ve never seen him get the hand-off, but I’m sure he would take it to the house. I’ve never seen him have a bad play. He’s always out here giving 100 percent in practice, even though he’s like 90 years old. He’s super fast. He’s versatile.”
Olsen had his best season last year despite dealing with a health issue involving his newborn son, TJ, who was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect in utero. Two weeks ago, TJ underwent the second of three surgeries he faces to correct a condition known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which is marked by an underdeveloped left ventricle and aorta.
“He came home the end of last week and he’s doing very well,” Olsen said. “So we’re very fortunate. He’s been great.”
As for the tight ends, Olsen said it’s been cool watching Ben Hartsock, known primarily as a blocker, step outside his comfort zone. Hartsock, entering his 10th season, has 31 career catches – less than half of Olsen’s 2012 total.
But Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Hartsock is a good complement to Olsen.
“You look at his catches, they’re all on the underneath routes – the quick ins, the quick outs,” Rivera said. “People miss the value of that when you have one tight end that can stretch the field and the other one that can attack the middle.”
Another receiving threat among the tight ends could be Nelson Rosario, a former UCLA wide receiver who spent last season on the Panthers’ practice squad.
“You’ve got a guy who’s 6(-foot)-5, 245 pounds who can run and jump and catch the ball,” Olsen said. “It’s a good place to start.”
Having Olsen as the No. 1 tight end isn’t a bad starting point, either.
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