Panthers 2014 position preview: Tight end

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers have assembled an impressive squad of tight ends for 2014. Who are they? What can we expect? And who will start?

If you haven't done so already, check out CSR's other offseason position previews. Don't worry, I'll wait.

June 7: Cornerback
June 14: Quarterback
June 16: Wide receiver
June 18: Special teams
June 19: Defensive tackle
June 22: Offensive guard
June 23: Running back
June 24: Offensive tackle

If there is one starting offensive weapon position to be confident in, it is tight end. With Greg Olsen returning for a third year and with no major injuries (knock on wood), he is one of the few that can say that they have a lock on their position in the starting lineup. But behind him is a cast of unknowns, castoffs, and multi-purpose guys. Who will rise to the top? We find out in this preview of the 2014 Carolina Panthers tight ends. (Listed are the tight ends in my predicted order of their ranking on the depth chart for 2014.)

Greg Olsen

Let’s be honest. As a receiving tight end, Olsen has a sparkling resume. In 2013, Olsen led the team in targets (109), receptions (73), receiving yardage (816), receiving TDs (6), receiving first downs (44), and 20+ yard catches (31). While the national media is easily dismissing the Panthers for their lack of wide receivers, they completely neglect Cam Newton’s number one target: Greg Olsen.

In a year where the Panthers are moving on from their previous top four WRs on the depth chart (Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn, Jr., Domenik Hixon), look for Olsen to play an even bigger role as Newton’s go-to guy and security blanket. When a touchdown or first down needed to be had in a crucial moment, Olsen seemed to always be in the right place, right time. It is a shame that he not yet made the Pro Bowl team as a Carolina Panther, as it would be well deserved.

Strengths: Olsen is a big, fast target, and is the only returning experienced pass-catcher. He can easily find holes in a zone and can be relied on by Newton when under duress. You can’t knock him for much - he is what you want in a tight end.

Areas for Improvement: While it was not much, Olsen did drop 4 passes last year. Again, you cannot knock him for much, but if you have to, it seemed like Olsen would drop a pass at the worst possible time. He can also work on his blocking ability, but this offense does not ask him to do so often.

Ed Dickson

Dickson started his career with the Baltimore Ravens, and appeared to be on the fast track to greatness. After a non-descript first year, he tallied 54 receptions, for 528 yards and caught 5 TDs. He even had an incredible catch in a Super Bowl win! Not too shabby.

But there was always something more to be desired from Dickson. Think potential unrealized. Despite being a big (6’4”) target with some giddyup (4.6 40-yard dash), he has not been able to fully translate his gifts into production. After his “breakout” year in 2011, he has only amassed 498 yards receiving and 1 touchdown in his last two years COMBINED.

Like Ted Ginn, Jr., before him, the Panthers front office sees immense potential that might not have been properly groomed. Look for him to be “coached up,” and with Olsen as a mentor, the sky's the limit. He quite possibly could give the Panthers offense the dangerous 2 TE attack that have sorely missed since Jeremy Shockey left two years ago.

Strengths: Dickson is an athletic, big tight end that is prominent in the NFL today. He is quick out of his breaks and is dangerous on seam routes. His athleticism and strength also helps him gain yards after the catch.

Areas for Improvement: According to Pro Football Focus, Ed Dickson was the worst blocking tight end in all of the NFL in 2013. Whether you believe in advanced metrics or not, being named dead last in blocking is not good.

And if Olsen is going to be knocked for his dropped passes, so will Dickson. In 2013, and like Olsen, Dickson dropped 4 passes. But because he had less targets, Dickson had high drop rate of 9.3%.

Video:

Here is a rather lengthy video of Dickson's highlights as a Baltimore Raven. Imagine the possibilities with Cam Newton.

Brandon Williams

The next Antonio Gates? Or Ed Dickson? Williams is a true enigma, being a training camp star and regular season non-entity. He surprised many last year by making 53-man roster, but was not able to get many regular season snaps.

At 6’4”, 250 lbs., with basketball experience, the easy comparisons are to Chargers TE Gates, former Chiefs/Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez, and Broncos TE Julius Thomas. But until Williams sees time in a live action game, these comparisons are just pipe dreams. With the offense moving towards a 2-TE set, Ben Hartsock not re-signed, and Dickson's history of inconsistency, the door is open for Brandon Williams to have a breakout season in 2014.

Strengths: Like Olsen and Dickson, Williams is an athletic tight end, with great size and speed. For all we have seen in training camp and preseason, he appears to have good hands, and the ability to find holes in a zone defense.

Areas for Improvement: Williams is raw, raw, raw. He hardly played last year, and prior to making the team, he had his collegiate football career at Oregon cut short due to injury. The Panthers and their fans really do not know what they have in Williams, but he does have the potential based on his athleticism. And hey, he made the team last year. More opportunities and experience is needed for him to get to the next level.

Mike McNeill

Early in the 2014 offseason, the Panthers’ biggest splash in free agency was McNeill, a rarely used tight end from the St. Louis Rams, who does one thing well: block. The Panthers’ primary blocking tight end last year, Ben Hartsock, went down to injury last year, and as a veteran, may have commanded too high a salary for the Panthers to offer. With his departure, the Panthers front office settled for another tight end with similar attributes and a smaller salary, but significantly less production and experience.

Blocking being his primary skill, he is not going to fill a stat sheet; In his four year career, he has totalled 5 catches, for 36 yards. If his blocking is not exceptional, he might not make the team.

Strengths: McNeill’s claim to fame is his blocking. He was brought in to take Hartsock’s role, and help clear lanes for the Newton and the run game.

Areas for Improvement: Everything else. Until he develops himself as a passing threat, opposing defenses will know that his presence on the field signals running play.

Video:

Sadly, according to YouTube, this is McNeill's claim to fame, as told by good ol' JR.

Richie Brockel

Brockel is this offense’s Swiss Army knife, as he is a hybrid in every sense of the word. (Think of a lesser version of Brad Hoover.) His official position is FB/TE, and is used in a multitude of ways to block.

While he does not “wow” people on film, nor impress observers with his athleticism, he manages to make the team every year and get playing time. When blocking TE Hartsock went down near the end of the season, he took over his role, with less success. Pro Football Focus rated Hartsock the league’s best run-blocking tight end, and Brockel was not even close to matching his production. To a casual observer, it can also be seen that the running game had a significant dropoff when Brockel replaced Hartsock.

If Brockel wants to make the team, he needs to continue to improve his blocking. He struggled a bit last year, and the addition of McNeill puts a little pressure on Brockel to improve.

Strengths: Brockel is a willing, experienced blocker. Coach Rivera and the offense trusts him enough to make the team the last two years, make the active roster on game days, and give him plenty of snaps.

Areas for Improvement: Everything else. He is a good for 1 or 2 rushes/receptions a season, but not much else. He even lost a fumble last year. To make the team, he needs to improve on his blocking and beat McNeill for a roster spot.

Video:

We can all use a flashback to quite possibly the best trick play in NFL history.


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