With Jeremy Shockey taking up an interest in dirt bikes, and Gary Barnidge leaving the practice field yesterday with an illness, the Carolina Panthers' TE position is not as cut and dry as it was a year ago. A quick look at the healthy TEs on the roster shows us a quality starter in Greg Olsen, a run-blocking specialist in Ben Hartsock and a TE/H-back in Richie Brockel. Aside from these three, there's a gaggle of rookie free agents and young inexperienced 'practice-squaders.'
Combine this with the uncertainty facing the WR position and it would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking the Panthers' offense is ready to take a step back in 2012. But when the Panthers made their relatively splashy free agent signing this spring, inking FB/HB Mike Tolbert to a four-year deal, they knew they would be adding a big piece to the offense.
As it relates to Shockey and the TE depth: Tolbert is an excellent receiver. At this stage in their careers, he is arguably a better receiver than Shockey. It would not be unreasonable to envision Tolbert producing just as much as Shockey did in the passing game a year ago. But for me, the Tolbert signing goes a little deeper...
In 2011, the Panthers' base offense was a two WR, two TE, one back set. The 2012 personnel, as it is now, eludes to the possibility that the base set will be switched to a two WR, one TE, two back set. This will likely reduce the need for multiple starting-quality TEs. That is probably why GM Marty Hurney and the Panthers' coaching staff elected not to re-sign Shockey -- or kick the tires on any other veteran TEs.
The offense will probably not change too much as a result, as 'Studzinski' likes to move people around pre-snap. So, Tolbert could start at FB, then motion to H-back, Wing-back, TE or to the slot, giving the Panthers four or five different looks with the same personnel.
Am I alone in viewing the addition of Tolbert and the subtraction of Shockey as an upgrade to this offense? This is not meant to downplay the contributions Shockey made to this team in 2011, but when looked at from another angle, the lack of interest in re-signing him, or any other 'proven' TE, makes sense.