Greg Olsen had his best season in the NFL, Gary Barnidge had his first regular-season touchdown, while Ben Hartsock and Richie Brockel just looked to get snaps. It may have not been an even year for the Panthers four tight ends, but any questions about their starter have been completely erased.
Former general manager Marty Hurney was, at times, a little too trade happy. His willingness to wheel and deal with draft picks ultimately caused a drain on the organization's talent reserves though a mixture of strange risks, and draft busts. When he decided to send a third round pick to the Chicago Bears for tight end Greg Olsen, it was a move that made too much sense for everyone involved. The Bears were squandering his ability as a receiver, as then-offensive coordinator Mike Martz was desperate to get an in-line blocker, while Rob Chudzinski in Carolina wanted a player he could pair with Cam Newton for the next five years. The result was arguably the best trade of Hurney's career.
69 receptions, 843 yards, 5 touchdowns -- the statistics alone put Olsen in elite status for the 2012 season. Finishing 4th in yards at his position is impressive enough, but it's all the little things that he wont get credit for that set Olsen apart.
Especially early in the season Cam Newton was a very erratic passer. As he tried to force the ball into bizarre windows, or look for Steve Smith in impossible coverage, the one constant was Olsen. When Cam needed a critical third down, it was Greg who was there -- did the play break down? Olsen was there to bail him out. The classic criticism of a big receiver, rather than tight end was erased through the way he fought for the football in critical situations, and found the seam when needed.
Among tight ends with over 50 catches, Olsen was second only to Rob Gronkowski in yards-per-reception. His ability to get behind linebackers was a key to the Panthers' successes through the air. Football Outsiders ranked him as the 5th best tight end in the league, all while being ignored far too often. If Cam Newton had found Olsen more in the early part of the season, there's no doubt he would have gone over 1,000 yards.
For his ability not only to stretch the field, but to make the hard catches when needed, there's really only one grade that suits Greg Olsen. An outstanding player on the field, an stellar member of the community off it -- the Panthers are lucky to have their TE spot locked up for years to come.
What do we make of Gary Barnidge? He's made himself a great member of the team, he interacts with fans on a regular basis, but he can't find a way to make a consistent impact on Sundays. It became apparent quickly that the Panthers had no interest making him Jeremy Shockey's replacement, instead putting him in only when needed -- which was not very often.
Barnidge played in all 16 games, and wasn't able to do much. His 6 receptions and 78 yards were nice, but they were sporadic. Ultimately he failed to crack Football Outsiders' top-50 at the position -- and it will be interesting to see where the Panthers go from here. I have no doubt he'll find a home in the NFL, but in Carolina he's just too similar to Olsen to be a regular contributor.
Perhaps the most misused player on the Carolina Panthers in 2012 -- Hartsock was rarely used as the stellar in-line blocker he was for the New York Jets. Instead he became a short-yardage receiver, something he's never been very good at. Rob Chudzinski's offensive scheme made it impossible for Hartsock to excel, but ultimately he's a 32-year-old tight end on a young team who are still building.
A 'glue guy' on special teams, Richie Brockel didn't get to do anything as exciting as 'The annexation of Puerto Rico' in his second season. Unable to make an impact on offense, he instead became part of a special teams unit who were utterly terrible. It's not fair to lump any of that on Brockel, but he has a future in an H-back role. Time will tell if he's used this way.