Since we’re evidently in the mood to plant broad football questions in headline forests today and then cut them down to see if anyone hears a sound, here’s another preseason teaser to ponder.

So what say you, office chair prognosticators who may or may not have several dollars invested in Greg Olsen through your various fake teams comprised of real humans? Can one of the two reliable veterans who’s on the receiving end of Cam Newton’s bullets join the tight end revolution that’s definitely televised?

His coach sure seems to think so.

Greg Olsen had 540 receiving yards last year and five touchdowns, but of course those numbers reflect a season in which he was splitting touches with Jeremy Shockey while the Panthers tried that whacky tight end tandem deal that all the cool offensive coordinators were testing out. Combined, Shockey and Olsen finished 2011 with 82 catches for 995 yards, and if we made them into one person (Jerg Shocksen?) that new bionic human would have been third in TE receiving yards last year behind Rob Gronkowksi and Jimmy Graham, and ahead of Jason Witten.

Olsen has the opportunity to make that scientific fusion now since Shockey was allowed to walk as a free agent, making him the sole source of brute force at the TE position in Carolina. Basically, he’ll try to be Gronk without the overt public nudity, and while keeping his clothes on should be easy, even entering the same neighborhood as his counterpart who set positional records for single-season touchdowns and receiving yards may be much more difficult.

Ron Rivera has faith, though. A lot of faith.

From the Charlotte Observer:

“I think he can be right in there with [Gronk and Graham],” Rivera said. “This will be his first real opportunity to step up and be the guy. You watch him catch footballs, you watch him run routes and you see those traits that he can fit right into that group.”

While the logic is sound, Olsen’s highest single-season yardage total is the 612 he finished with in 2009 while still with the Bears. And if it’s yardage and downfield damage the Panthers and Olsen are looking for, they should probably be certain which Cam Newton will show up this year, something that’s far out of Olsen’s control as he tries to form some elite super trio atop the league’s overall tight end depth chart.

To be clear, every version of Newton that played last year was very, very good, but the guy who played in the first half of the season was a bit better, especially when he was asked to pass a football in a forward direction. That’s the guy we remember most when we look back on the 2011 season, primarily because Newton became the first quarterback to pass for at least 400 yards in each of his first two games.

However, there was a difference between Newton’s first and second half performances, specifically in how much he was asked to stretch the field. Over his first eight games Newton averaged 8.3 yards per pass attempt, but then in the second half of the season that number fell to 7.5. With most of the deep attention directed at Steve Smith, reaching the heights of Gronk and Graham may be a difficult feat for Olsen.

Yes, part of the yards per attempt number is out of Newton’s control, and is instead dependent on the play calling and the game situation, and indeed the Panthers won more in the second half of last year than they did in the first half (four wins compared to two). But that may be the far more important point for Olsen, and for your fantasy team that’s cleverly named something in reference to Asante Samuel’s thickness. Until Newton takes another step forward with his accuracy (a very average 60.0 last year), instinct will still prevail, the same instincts that had his legs pumping for 706 rushing yards and 14 TDs on the ground last year. Offensive coordinator Rob Chuzinski is aware of Newton’s comfort while mobile, and structures his offense to take advantage of his QB’s unique athletic characteristics.

Newton averaged 7.6 carries per game last year, which is the same average Michael Vick had in 2006 when he rushed for 1,039 yards, setting the new benchmark for quarterback rushing. Alge Crumpler was productive as Vick’s safety valve, but he didn’t approach Gronkian levels with his 780 yards.

So while Olsen could flirt with the 1,000-yard plateau, getting to the next level and 1,300 yards to sit with Gronk and Graham will be difficult when he’s still attached to a quarterback who enjoys a leisurely Sunday jog.

Comments (1)

  1. Most of Olsen’s barriers to reaching that top tier of TEs are identified here, except for one: Talent.

    Olsen is only an inch shorter than Gronk, two shorter than Graham, and ten pounds lighter than both. A bit of a size disadvantage, but he is still a big man.

    But he is not nearly as athletic as either. He doesn’t drag defenders for dozens of yards like Gronk, nor can he sky for jump balls in the end zone like Graham.

    It’s much more likely that a finally healthy Antonio Gates or a no-longer-drop-prone Jermichael Finely approach that top tier as they take over the number one passing option on their respective teams (obviously much more likely for Gates, now that VJax is in TBay).

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