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Panthers TE Olsen is getting better with age

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At an age when most NFL players are on the decline, Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen appears to be trending in an opposite direction.

While much of the attention the past two offseasons has focused on what the Panthers have and haven’t done at receiver, the 30-year-old continues to be one of the league’s least talked about offensive weapons.

In 2014, despite often being a focal point of every defensive game plan, Olsen destroyed his franchise records with 84 receptions and 1,008 yards en route to the first Pro Bowl appearance of his eight-year career.

Now, with Carolina’s wideout makeover in its second year, Olsen stands to get a little more help from his friends.

“At this point last year, we were pretty much teaching a handful of our guys that we’d go on to count on throughout the rest of the season. We were kind of starting them from scratch,” Olsen said Monday. “This year, we had a little more retention, and we’re able to move on a little bit, not do so much of the basics so long.”

Last spring, the Panthers had just one pass catcher who had caught a touchdown the previous season with Carolina: Olsen. New faces included tight end Ed Dickson and receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Jerricho Cotchery.

A year later, the Panthers are still unlikely to lead the league in points, but it’s obvious the passing game is in a much better spot.

Dickson, Benjamin and Cotchery have a season in the system under their belts; quarterback Cam Newton is more than a year removed from ankle surgery; the Panthers brought back Ted Ginn in free agency, then moved up in the second round to draft Devin Funchess; and 2014 undrafted rookie Corey Brown has been one of this spring’s most improved players.

“Last year at this time, Corey was a guy that we said, ‘Oh wow, he’s fast,'” Olsen said. “The guy can play. He’s not just a one-trick pony who’s going to run deep. He can get in and out of his routes. He can run after the catch. He’s a guy that has a lot of natural instinct to him.”

In theory, speedsters Brown and Ginn should help open things up for Olsen in the middle of the field. The Panthers also hope he won’t have to be used at the line as much either.

As the line was wrecked by injuries midway through last season, Olsen was often asked to chip a defender before heading into his route. Even when the patchwork group held better later in season, Newton’s protection tended to appear on the brink of collapse, especially at left tackle. So out went Byron Bell and in came Michael Oher.

To many, it looks like the Panthers only replaced a failed experiment with a guy who failed the past two seasons. But for what it’s worth, Olsen is buying into the quick fix.

“(Oher’s) presence, his veteran demeanor has been noticed,” Olsen said. “He’s played a lot, and you can tell. He gets it. He understands blocking schemes. He understands how fits work. It’s easy playing next to guys like that.”

Since contact is severely limited in OTAs, it’s way too early to tell whether Oher can be a Band-Aid that sticks. It’s even tougher to judge an aggressive defense that isn’t allowed to hit. Yet it was still impressive to see what Olsen did Monday.

He dominated, grabbing three touchdowns during red-zone drills, and then made the day’s best catch, fending off tight coverage to snag a pass down the seam in 11-on-11s.

Signed to a three-year extension in March, Olsen is showing no signs of slowing down. After totaling 194 receptions for 1,981 yards and 20 touchdowns during four seasons in Chicago, he’s put up 271 catches for 3,207 yards and 22 scores since joining Newton and the Panthers in 2011. His reception totals: 45, 69, 73 and 84.

“My four years with (Newton) have been the best four years of my career. I don’t necessarily think that’s a coincidence,” Olsen said. “I think I’ve gotten better, but I also think playing with him has been great for my career — kind of growing along with him.”

And the Carolina combo has at least four more years to grow. Olsen’s extension has him locked in through 2018, two years before Newton’s new contract expires.

“Right after he signed his deal, I texted him and I said, ‘Hey man, all joking aside, hopefully, you’ll be the last quarterback that I ever play with,'” Olsen said.

He then asked reporters: “How many years did he sign for?”

When told five years, Olsen smiled, briefly thought about playing through 2020, and said: “Oh, I don’t know about that. We’ll see. We’ll take it one year at a time, but hopefully I can play my whole career here and finish up with him. That would be the goal.”


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