It had been the better part of a decade since Carolina Panthers fans had any excitement about their tight ends, but with Rob Chudzinski running an offense heavily invested in the position, it became clear as soon as he was signed that the Panthers would be looking at tight end in a new light. Early trepidation about Jeremy Shockey soon gave way to elation as Marty Hurney pulled off one of his better trades in acquiring Greg Olsen from Chicago for nothing more than a 3rd round pick. Olsen and Shockey formed one of the better TE tandems in the league with Olsen stretching the field, and Shockey picking up the hard, dirty yards.
As we look forward to the 2012 season the position is in flux. Barring some 11th hour change of heart, it looks like the Panthers have decided to part ways with Shockey. In some ways this is understandable- he's seen as an amazing teammate, but tends to wear out his welcome quickly. Shockey certainly made no waves during his year in Carolina, but if you track his career he didn't make waves in the first year at any of his stops.
The Panthers now turn to Olsen to shoulder far more of the responsibility at the position, as their second they seem willing to gamble on 5th year veteran Gary Barnidge. At this stage there's little to base any faith on Barnidge but blind hope. He's clearly a great athlete, and at moments he's shined- but you're still looking at a player who's barely seen the field in the three playable seasons he's had, and injury derailed his 2011 campaign.
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There is a segment of the fan base who weren't pleased with Greg Olsen's 2011 season. A year in which he amassed 540 yards receiving, and 5 touchdowns. There seems to have been a perception that Olsen should have been an 800+ yard receiver, but the reality is there are scant few tight ends like that in the NFL, especially those who share receptions. Now he's going to get the lion's share and knows the offense better I think we'll see a player who flourishes in this offense, and his size, speed and ability make him a terrible match-up, should a team be foolish enough to match a linebacker on him in man coverage.
Projected 2012 statistics for Greg Olsen: 71 receptions, 852 yards, 8 touchdowns
Gary Barnidge looks to have fully recovered from his ankle injury, and looks to work his way onto the field for the first time under this offense. If the Panthers can get any production out of Barnidge it will be a good thing, and while some might say he's poised to break out, others will say he's nothing special. As in all things the truth will lie somewhere in the middle. He's shown enough that he can play in this league, but whether he'll be effective is another matter. It's unlikely he'll be used as often as Shockey was last year, with Mike Tolbert taking on some of his role also.
Projected 2012 statistics for Gary Barnidge: 25 receptions, 355 yards, 2 touchdowns
We now reach an interesting milieu for the remainder of the H-Backs and Tight Ends- Richie Brockel, Ben Hartsock, Tarren Lloyd and Greg Smith will all be fighting for roster spots. That same order you have there is the odds each player might earn a spot. Lloyd and Smith are true TEs, and it wouldn't surprise me to see either get stashed on the practice squad.
The main problem the Panthers will contend with is their lack of blocking. Jeremy Shockey wasn't great, but he was a better in-line blocker than Olsen or Barnidge, both of whom fit the receiver mold far better. With an already youthful offensive line we could see the TEs get asked to help block a lot, and it's here we may really miss Shock.
All-in-all there's a lot to be excited about from Carolina's tight ends in 2012. As with all the players, Cam Newton will continue to build a rapport with Greg Olsen, and lean on him more heavily in crunch situations. With a year under their belts and the playbook opened up even more, it seems the days of dull TE play for the Panthers are over.