Why tight end could be the 'most important position' in lifting Panthers' offense

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady wouldn’t say that his former quarterback was right in claiming there weren’t enough two-minute and hurry-up drills in practice last season.

But Brady did indirectly support the claim of Teddy Bridgewater, who was traded to the Denver Broncos in the offseason, that tight end was an issue for the Panthers in 2020.

“The system ... I grew up in, the tight end position was the most important position on the field," Brady said during OTAs. “The matchups that they create and everything else ... it's been a point of emphasis this offseason, just trying to get those guys going in the passing game."

Tight ends were practically nonexistent in Brady’s system a year ago. They combined for an NFL-low 204 receiving yards, the third fewest from a tight end group in the last 10 years, behind the 2015 New York Jets (95) and 2016 Jets (173).

Their 27 receptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information, were the second fewest in the NFL behind New England (18). Their two touchdown catches were tied for the fewest behind the Patriots and New York Giants, with one each.

That played a role in red zone inefficiency. Carolina ranked 28th last season at 51 percent, ahead of only Dallas (50%), Cincinnati (50%), the Giants (46%) and the Jets (42%).

None had a winning record or made the playoffs. Including Carolina at 5-11, they were a combined 23-56.

On the other end of the spectrum, of the 13 teams with a winning record in 2020, nine had a tight end rank in the top two on the team in touchdown catches. Kansas City with an NFL-best 14-2 record led the way with Travis Kelce’s 11 touchdown catches.

Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, with tight end Rob Gronkowski’s seven touchdown catches, tied for the fifth best regular-season record at 11-5.

“The guys that really play tight end the way it’s supposed to be played, there’s nothing they’re not impacting," said three-time Pro Bowler Greg Olsen, who recently retired as a member of the Panthers.

That’s one of the things Olsen, Kelce and San Francisco’s George Kittle emphasized recently at what they called “Tight End University” during a weekend gathering of 49 tight ends in Nashville.

“A lot of times they’re physically dominant type players, athletic and versatile," Olsen said. “They can have a huge impact on the offense."

Olsen’s seven touchdown catches ranked second for Carolina in 2015 when it went an NFL-best 15-1 and reached the Super Bowl. The Panthers also ranked first in the NFL in red zone efficiency that season at 69.44 percent.

They fell to 21st in 2017 when Olsen was limited to seven games due to injuries.

Carolina hoped last season that 2018 fourth-round pick Ian Thomas would step up, but he had only 20 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown. Chris Manhertz, known primarily as a blocker, had only six catches for 52 yards and no touchdowns.

The Panthers still hope Thomas can be a factor, but moved on from Manhertz. They instead signed Arizona’s Dan Arnold to a two-year, $6 million deal in hopes he can emerge.

Arnold had 31 catches for 438 yards and four touchdowns at Arizona last season.

Carolina also drafted Notre Dame’s Tommy Tremble in the third round. Known as an elite blocker in college where he had only 35 catches and four touchdowns, Brady believes Tremble can be a complete tight end.

“I don’t see Tommy as a guy that’s just a run blocker. ... I don’t want tight ends that are just trying to focus on one thing. As a unit, the tight end room understands the importance of being a complete tight end.

“So we’re going to ask guys to do something they might not have done in the past."

Getting one of those players to emerge could be key for the development of new quarterback Sam Darnold. Defenses that have to focus on the tight end can’t always send an extra pass-rusher or keep a safety back in coverage. If the tight end is doubled, weapons such as running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver DJ Moore, won’t be.

And if they get doubled, that creates more opportunities for the tight end. That player could become a “security blanket" as former Carolina quarterback Cam Newton always called Olsen.

“Just that guy that you can rely on over the middle," said Panthers tight ends coach Brian Angelichio. “If a trust factor is developed with that, generally, depending on the read or progression, the ball is going to find him."

While there is no indisputable stat proving elite tight ends are key to winning titles or winning seasons, there’s evidence they play a big role.

Here are a few telling 2020 stats from ESPN Stats & Information:

  • Fourteen teams in 2020 saw their tight end group produce at least eight touchdown catches. Ten made the playoffs, including Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, tied for fourth with 11.

  • Eight tight ends had at least seven touchdown catches. Seven were on teams that ranked in the top 10 in scoring, led by Green Bay’s Robert Tonyan with 11.

  • Six teams that had a tight end with at least five touchdowns catches in the red zone ranked in the top 10 in red zone efficiency. Tonyan had seven for Green Bay, which ranked first.

  • Seattle was the only team in the top 10 in red zone efficiency that didn’t have a tight end with at least four touchdown catches.

Olsen believes the Panthers simply are in a transition period at tight end, and as that position improves so will the offense and playoff chances.

“The reason you see players like Kittle and Kelce becoming such prominent players in the league is because there is no play they don’t impact," Olsen reiterated. “There’s nothing that they’re missing."