Tight End is one of the more flexible positions in football, as it can be molded to fit a coach's offensive strategy. Most tight ends fit into one of two categories: receiving or blocking. Blocking tight ends will usually act almost as an extra member of the offensive line, helping to clear a path for the running back or give the quarterback a few extra seconds. Receiving tight ends are just that: receivers. As the defense does not usually cover these players as carefully as wide receivers, they are often utilized as a secondary option for the QB when the other players have been locked down. The best TEs are often hybrids of sorts, possessing the size and strength of a blocker in addition to the speed and dexterity of a receiver. This year, the Panthers have what may at first glance seem an unusually large number of TEs (six), but Ron Rivera has said he plans to use a lot more two-TE sets than in recent years. Among this crop of youngsters and veterans are blockers, receivers, and potentially a hybrid or two. Here’s a look at your 2014 Carolina Panthers’ tight ends.
Greg Olsen (8th season, Miami)
The 31st overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Greg Olsen has become one of Cam Newton's favorite targets since being acquired by the Panthers in 2011. Last year, Olsen lead Carolina in receptions with 73, which he managed to turn into 816 yards and six touchdowns. At 6'5" and 250 lbs, Olsen is a capable blocker, but will be of much greater use as a receiver. He and Ed Dickson will be a deadly combo in a two-TE set, and should provide a nice contrast to some of the Panthers' less tested receivers. Something else worth noting is that Olsen was named to USA Today's All Joe Team, which serves to recognize the league's unsung heroes, for the second straight year in 2013. In order to be eligible for the All Joe Team, a player cannot have appeared in a Pro Bowl. If Olsen, who was named a second alternate in 2009, keeps up this level of production, he could soon be saying goodbye to his All Joe eligibility.
Ed Dickson (5th season, Oregon)
Taken with the 70th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens, Dickson was given limited exposure his rookie season, catching eleven passes for 152 yards and one touchdown. The following year, he won the starting job in Baltimore, and handled the increased workload well, catching 54 passes for 528 yards and five touchdowns in 2011. However, in 2012--the year the Ravens won the Super Bowl--his role as a receiver was diminished in favor of fellow 2010 draftee Dennis Pitta. As a result, Dickson became more of a blocker, although he did catch two passes for 37 yards in the franchise's second Super Bowl victory. With Pitta out for most of 2013 (hip fracture), Dickson was named the starter. However, he failed to duplicate what he had done two years prior, catching 25 passes for 273 yards and one touchdown. Although the Ravens offered him a contract extension, Dickson decided to test the waters, and spurned offers from the Jaguars, Bills, Jets, and Giants to come to Carolina. Personally, Ed Dickson is probably my favorite of the Panthers' free agent signings. He brings a lot to the table, both physically and in terms of experience. Having a guy who's won the Super Bowl on a team that hasn't won a playoff game in almost nine years can prove to be valuable from a leadership standpoint, and the fact that he can fit in pretty much anywhere as a blocker or a receiver is another big plus. It's possible that a change of scenery may be all Ed Dickson needs to start performing at the level we know he's capable of. Either way, he adds depth to a position that didn't really have much of until recently, and that's always a good thing.
Brandon Williams (2nd season, Oregon/Portland Bible College)
Last season, Brandon Williams surprised a lot of people by securing a spot on the 53-man roster despite not playing a down of football in college. Williams was slated to play for Oregon in 2010 before he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, or the narrowing of the spinal column. What would be a career-ending diagnosis in football would be manageable in some other sports, so Williams swapped his cleats for basketball shoes and spent three years playing for Portland Bible College before a doctor gave him the news: he could play football again. Invited to the NFL Regional Combine in Seattle, Williams impressed Panthers’ coaches and drew some comparison to Julius Thomas. Thomas, who caught twelve touchdowns for the Denver Broncos last season, played basketball at Portland State and saw very little action his first two seasons in the league. While it's too early to say for certain if Williams will experience a similar boom, the Panthers have planned on increasing his workload this season, so fans will finally get a good look at the future of Carolina's TE corps.
Richie Brockel (4th season, Boise State)
Almost never in the NFL do we see players who can play multiple positions. Richie Brockel, who went undrafted in 2010, is one of these rare gems. As a TE and fullback last year, he caught one pass for twelve yards and rushed once for one yard. Needless to say, the 6'1", 255 lb Brockel is more of a blocker, and will continue to be one unless disaster strikes and the two receivers go down.
Mike McNeill (4th season, Nebraska)
McNeill, who went undrafted out of Nebraska in 2011, has done stints with the Colts and Rams, but at five career receptions for 36 yards has been more of a reserve/practice squad guy. Brought in as a blocker, the Panthers consider him an upgrade over Ben Hartsock, who they did not re-sign. Depending on the circumstances, McNeill could play in every game this year (he played 14 with the Rams last season), or spend the year on the practice squad.
D.C. Jefferson (2nd season, Rutgers)
Jefferson, a 6'6", 255-pounder out of Rutgers, was drafted in the seventh round (219th overall) last year by the Arizona Cardinals. Midway through the season, he was arrested and charged with DUI after he sideswiped another vehicle. He was released the next week, a move that coach Bruce Arians claimed had nothing to do with the arrest. Jefferson, who played in four Cardinals’ games last season, and is considered to be a bubble player to make the Carolina Panthers’ 2014 roster.