Panthers counting on big season from TE Olsen

Greg Olsen is hoping he can be as productive as Rob Gronkowski

and Jimmy Graham.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera believes Olsen could be

poised for a breakout season not having to share catches with

Jeremy Shockey, now a free agent, and with the arrival of new

fullback Mike Tolbert, who should lighten Olsen’s load as a

blocker.

In fact, Rivera believes ”it’s possible” Olsen could put up

numbers similar to what Gronkowski and Graham did last season.

And that’s saying something.

Gronkowski turned in a great season a year ago catching 90

passes for 1,327 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns for the AFC

champion New England Patriots. Graham had 99 catches for 1,310

yards receiving and 11 scores for the division rival New Orleans

Saints.

You’d have to scan a bit further down the list of league leaders

– OK, way down – to find Olsen’s name.

He finished his first season in Carolina (No. 20 in the AP Pro

32) with 45 catches for 540 yards receiving and five

touchdowns.

However, when you begin to factor in Shockey’s numbers – 37

receptions for 455 yards receiving and four touchdowns – it begins

to put the Panthers in the same ballpark with the Patriots and

Saints when it comes to overall tight end production.

With Shockey not likely to return, Rivera expects more balls

will be thrown Olsen’s way.

”This will be his first real opportunity with us to step up and

be the starting tight end and be the guy,” Rivera said. ”You

watch him catch footballs and you watch him run routes and you see

those traits that say you can fit right into that group. We’re

excited about it.”

Good enough to challenge Gronkowski and Graham?

”It’s possible,” Rivera said. ”We spread the ball around so

much in this offense, but I really think it’s possible for a guy to

have big games and put quite a few of them together and have some

big numbers.”

Rivera said Olsen has a tremendous rapport with quarterback Cam

Newton and works extremely hard.

”I think he’s a tremendous target,” Rivera said. ”I think the

chance of him stepping up and being right in the elite group of

players at his position I think that’s possible. I really do.”

Olsen also has something else working to his advantage –

offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, a former tight ends coach who

loves utilizing that position in the passing game.

Just look at what he did for Antonio Gates in San Diego and

Kellen Winslow Jr. in Cleveland.

As you might expect all of this talk of more passes thrown his

way is music to Olsen’s ears.

He is, after all, a receiver by nature.

Catching the football is what he does best.

And he feels if given the chance he can finish among the league

leaders in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.

”In terms of physically running, catching and doing all of

things, I don’t think there’s a lot of guys in the league who do

those things better than I do,” Olsen said. ”Sometimes it’s just

a matter of different circumstances dictate different

results.”

At the same time Olsen isn’t a selfish player.

He doesn’t measure his success by personal statistics.

”I’ve had some seasons where I caught a lot of balls and I

looked back and realized I didn’t play all that well overall, and

I’ve had others where I caught 40 balls and felt like I played well

around,” Olsen said. ”I’ve never been one to try to let stats

dictate what I bring to the team. But obviously production is what

you’re judged on.”

Olsen’s most productive season came in 2009 when he had 612

yards receiving on 60 receptions and eight touchdowns for the

Chicago Bears.

While it looked as if he was on the verge of becoming a breakout

player in the league, the arrival of offensive coordinator Mike

Martz in 2010 changed how the Bears utilized the tight end

position.

Olsen spent the majority of his final two seasons with the Bears

used more in blocking situations. The Bears traded him away for a

third-round draft pick last summer.

Carolina’s plan is to play to Olsen’s strengths.

Olsen said based on the plays the team is running in practice

and in preseason games he’ll have an opportunity to put up quality

numbers.

”I think so and that’s always been my strength is catching the

ball,” Olsen said.

NOTES: Rivera is optimistic outside linebacker Thomas Davis, who

has missed the past two preseason games with a calf strain, will

play Sunday night against the New York Jets after having his

workload increased the past two days. However, Rivera doesn’t seem

as optimistic about middle linebacker Jon Beason’s (hamstring)

availability. … Wide receiver David Gettis continues to work on

rehabbing his knee while working with trainers on the side. In the

meantime, Rivera expects that his No. 3 receiver spot will likely

come down to a ”by committee” approach.

Follow Steve Reed on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SteveReedAP

Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and

http://twitter.com/AP-NFL