Greg Olsen is coming off of one of his best seasons in the NFL. His first year in Carolina as a starter, Olsen set career highs in receptions (69), yards (843), and average yards per reception (12.2). Olsen has proven to be one of Cam Newton's most reliable targets, and were it not for some missed opportunities here and there, might have scored more than just 5 touchdowns and came much closer to his first 1,000 yard receiving season. Cam will progress with time and take notice of these opportunities, but last season these missed chances could have been major difference makers in the heartbreaking losses of the season.
Olsen will start for sure at Tight End. He has a great rapport with Cam, his blocking ability has taken a noticeable upward turn, and he's an overall great player. Though Brandon LaFell is the "number two receiver", Olsen is definitely Cam's second favorite receiver, and will see a lot of the same production from last season.
Chances to start: 100%
Hartsock is returning from the 2012 season where he was second only to Greg Olsen in receiving yards and receptions as a tight end. Wait... you're probably thinking there's a problem with that statement. You are correct. Hartsock ended the season with a STAGGERING 2 receptions for 30 yards. To his credit, Hartsock probably would have a touchdown if Cam didn't unfortunately miss him in the first game of the season. With Hartsock, you are getting what you pay for. Hartsock is not at risk of being a salary cap casualty. He is not going to blow up the stat sheet as a receiver, but he is the best blocking option the Panthers have at the position. Greg Olsen made some serious strides last season to being a complete tight end, making key blocks and becoming the complete package.
That being said, Hartsock at least possesses some ability to catch the ball when needed. Nelson Rosario is the best backup receiving option the Panthers have but needs to work on blocking, Richie Brockel is the blocking, jack of all trades type player but won't make a great deal of strides toward being a receiver any time soon. Hartsock isn't going to scare defenses, but you can do a lot worse for a tight end.
Chance to make roster- 75%
Richie Brockel Brockel will be remembered fondly in Panthers history for the famous Fumble-rooski play against the Houston Texans in 2011. After that, there aren't a whole lot of "razzle-dazzle" plays to remember him by. Brockel failed to log any offensive stats in 2012, but notched 3 special teams tackles. Brockel is listed as a tight end and full back. He provides a lot of versatility, being able to step in at either position and not screw up. He's a solid blocker with special teams value, and this blogger would compare him (its a bit of a stretch but it fits) to Brad Hoover. Brockel will step in and do what he can to help the team. His ability to block at different positions and added special teams value can save roster spots, therefore he has a fighting chance to stay on the roster. But if Nelson Rosario emerges as a legitimate receiving threat, the Panthers may only need one true blocking tight end, and I'd think Hartsock would get the nod before Brockel.
Chance to make the roster: 50%
Rosario is the wild card in all of this. Rosario is essentially a REALLY BIG wide receiver rather than a tight end. But with the departure of Gary Barnidge, the Panthers second best receiving threat at tight end last season, a need exists for a tight end with receiving value. Rosario spent all of 2012 on the Practice Squad, but drew praise as a great receiver with some unbelievable catching ability. And that praise is still drawn. Steve Smith applauded Rosario for his "circus catches" and receiving ability. Steve Smith doesn't normally praise players, especially young ones, so this is something that should not fall on deaf ears. Rosario will need to work on his blocking ability, but maintains Practice Squad eligibility should the Panthers roll with Brockel, Hartsock, and Olsen into the regular season.
But Rosario has a chance to shine, seeing as only Olsen is the true threat. I'd like to offer a comparison for Nelson Rosario, and a possible scenario for him. In the NFL today, many top flight teams now posess two starter caliber tight ends with receiving ability. Gone are the days where teams choose to rely on one tight end for passing offense (though players like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzales still play this role). Teams like the Ravens (Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson) have two options and can choose to use them simultaneously.
Even the Panthers at one point had two, with Jeremy Shockey partnering with Cam and Co. to contribute alongside Greg Olsen. But, the best duo of tight ends today is Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. And this is where I draw up my comparison. Hernandez (6-1, 245 pounds) and Rosario (6-5, 225 pounds) compare favorably. Both are basically larger wide receivers. Hernandez often lines up wide and in the backfield when not playing tight end, a spot where Gronkowski figures to be more of a true tight end. Hernandez then creates mismatches for the defense, as cornerbacks may have trouble covering him due to his size and linebackers can have trouble due to his speed. Rosario in college was a wide receiver/h-back turned tight end going into the NFL.
He lacks wide receiver speed but still possesses speed to create issues for defenses. If utilized properly with favorable development, Rosario could figure to become the Panthers' Aaron Hernandez. No, I'm not saying Rosario IS Hernandez, nor will he match up talent wise. But Rosario's strengths can be better utilized in this type of role. But it all depends on how he develops and how well he practices this offseason.
Chance to make the 53- 25% Chance to make Practice Squad- 100%
Williams possesses ideal size for a tight end. The former Oregon Duck is getting his second chance after being diagnosed with a narrow spinal canal and bulging disc in his back. However, the tight end spot is relatively crowded, and Rosario probably provides more upside. Unless he can block well and provide more receiving value than Brockel and Hartsock, most likely Williams won't last. But special teams value is always a factor, and he still has Practice Squad eligibility. But if Rosario is brougt back to the PS don't expect Williams to follow. Chance to make roster- 10% Chance to make Practice Squad- 50%