Tight ends are quickly becoming some of the most dynamic offensive weapons in the NFL.
Players like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez really revolutionized the position, making it a spot for athletic freaks who can block, stretch the field, find the end zone and catch in traffic like Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham, Jermichael Finley and Rob Gronkowski.
Offensive coordinators are riding this new wave of talent high; tight ends aren't seen as just extra linemen who can occasionally catch a short yardage pass over the middle, and the Carolina Panthers are no exception to this new trend.
Over the offseason, the Panthers made a minor splash into the free-agent market and acquired Jeremy Shockey prior to the lockout mess. At the time I was hesitant about the presence of Shockey, who's attracted drama wherever he's gone and is generally considered a negative locker room presence.
Not exactly the kind of player you want to surround a rookie quarterback with.
Fortunately for the Panthers, it worked out. Shockey's prior experience in the NFC South helped him transition well and the off-the-field issues were kept to a minimum.
Whether or not he'll be back for the 2012 season remains to be seen, but the move to pick up Shockey was a solid one on the Panthers' part.
But the real steal was the Panthers' trade for Greg Olsen. Acquired for just a third-round pick, the fifth-year player has some of the best hands of any tight end in football.
I think he was extremely underutilized in Chicago, and he'll be a player that Cam Newton will rely on heavily as he develops into a stronger red-zone passer.
Olsen showed just the kind of potential he has early, gathering over 350 yards and four touchdowns prior to the break.
After Week 8, though, the former Miami Hurricane's performance tapered off greatly; he caught only passes in his final four games. Still, the talent is there and I think Rob Chudzinski will find the best way to tap into it.
Not many teams have the luxury of two tight ends on the team who possess similar skill sets.
Between Olsen and Shockey, Carolina amassed 995 yards and nine touchdowns out of the tight end position. And there is some depth behind those two as well—they have Ben Hartsock, who's strictly a blocker, and Gary Barnidge, who missed all of last season with an injury.
Barnidge is athletic and could fill in Shockey's role if the team decides not to bring him back, but personally I'd rather try to fill that void via the draft. Drake Dunsmore, a receiving tight end out of Northwestern who I like a lot, might still be available in the fourth or fifth round and is worth a look.
2011 Performance Grade: C+
The Shockey signing was shrewd, but I really expected much more out of Greg Olsen. Hopefully Cam Newton will realize the weapon he has there and exploit it more next season.
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