For many years, having a reliable starting tight end on the Carolina Panthers roster wasn’t much of a question.
But with the team moving on from many core players last offseason, including Greg Olsen, tight end is among a group of positions that still have big holes to fill, including linebacker and defensive tackle.
In 2019, Olsen’s final season in Carolina, he played in 14 games, finishing with 52 receptions for 597 yards and two touchdowns. This past year, the tight ends on the Panthers roster combined for 27 receptions for 204 yards and two touchdowns. They were not an overly involved part of the receiving game, and a missing piece to the offense that was also without its best player for the season in running back Christian McCaffrey.
There was hope that Ian Thomas could turn in to an Olsen replacement, but whether it was a lack of offseason workout time with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, just not developing into a dynamic pass catcher or other factors, it hasn’t come together yet for Thomas as a part of the passing game.
As the Panthers prepare to officially say goodbye to the past at tight end in Olsen, who along with linebacker Thomas Davis Sr. will sign one-day contracts this week and retire, the need to take steps toward the future at the position has never been more apparent.
“I think you’re looking for guys that are smart, tough, can play under pressure, critical situations. That have position flexibility, can play on the line of scrimmage, you can move them around,” Panthers tight end coach Brian Angelichio told The Observer about what qualities he values in a tight end. “Certainly in today’s game have the ability to split out and create matchups on linebackers and safeties.”
There are a variety of ways the team can go about finding those qualities. Let’s take a look at the options and who is under contract for 2021.
ON THE ROSTER
Thomas was the Panthers’ leading tight end in receiving during the 2020 season. His 20 receptions ranked 47th among all tight ends and his 9.1 yards per game were 63rd. Thomas’ 11 receiving first downs in 2020 ranked tied for 29th by a Panthers tight end in a single season.
Three years removed from being a fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Thomas has yet to top the performance from his rookie year, when he was filling in for Olsen. He split starts with soon-to-be free agent Chris Manhertz this past season and hasn’t shown he can be the long-term answer.
The Panthers re-signed Thompson to a one-year deal earlier this offseason. His only reception last season was a touchdown catch. Thompson provides depth at tight end and contributes on special teams.
Ricci was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Western Michigan last year and spent the entire season on the practice squad.
The first addition to the roster with general manager Scott Fitterer in the building, Sullivan is plenty familiar with multiple people working at Bank of America Stadium.
Sullivan played at LSU under Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady. He caught 12 passes for 130 yards as a tight end/wide receiver in his senior year when Brady was with the Tigers. The Seattle Seahawks drafted him in the seventh round of the 2020 draft, but he spent a majority of his rookie season on the practice squad and ended his year on injured reserve. Sullivan also saw time at defensive end in Seattle, but Fitterer clearly saw enough he liked to bring him to Carolina.
FREE AGENT OPTIONS
Free agency is a tough place to find a starting-caliber tight end. This year, there are a few players who could fit with the Panthers. But with less available players, the ones who many teams are interested in may receive more money than Carolina wants to pay a veteran tight end. But getting this position right is important for the offense to have success going forward, and the Panthers should leave no stone unturned.
Here are some free agents that could be interesting fits.
Players to watch that could be cap casualties/trade candidates: Philadelphia Eagles TE Zach Ertz, Cleveland Browns TE David Njoku
Hunter Henry — Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers used the franchise tag on Henry last year, and he had a solid season in 2020. Henry finished the year with 613 receiving yards, 12th among tight ends.
He has dealt with a variety of injuries throughout his career but is still arguably the top tight end on the free agent market with a high ceiling. Staying healthy is one of the biggest concerns when it comes to Henry, but at 26 years old, his experience and potential could make sense for the Panthers. The team is building for the long term and may have a young quarterback who could use a high-volume pass-catcher.
Kyle Rudolph — Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings announced last week that the team was moving on from Rudolph after 10 years, and his name quickly became one to watch.
Since 2015, Rudolph is tied for the third-most receiving touchdowns among tight ends (31, with Eric Ebron and Jimmy Graham) and has the seventh-most receiving first downs by a tight end (179). He has caught more than 70 percent of his targets each of the past four years. At 31-years old, he may not be long-term answer as some other players, but he would certainly be a reliable option for whoever is playing quarterback.
More on the potential Rudolph fit here.
Jared Cook — New Orleans Saints
Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith may be a more ideal option to think about as he is closer to the middle of his career than Cook, but players like Smith and Henry will likely seek significantly more money.
Cook could be an intriguing short-term option. Currently 25 years old, his best playing days may be ahead of him, but he is familiar with Brady’s offense from playing in New Orleans and would bring a veteran presence to the locker room.
The Panthers do need a long-term answer, but the draft may end up being the best avenue for that.
PANTHERS DRAFT POSSIBILITIES
So, you might have heard of this player named Kyle Pitts from Florida ... and no other tight ends from the 2021 draft class. Pitts is receiving plenty of positive buzz as the top rookie tight end, but he’s also among the best athletes in the draft. With the needs the Panthers have, especially at quarterback, and how early Pitts has been projected to go, it is not looking good for him to end up in Carolina. Luckily for everyone, there are other tight ends in this year’s draft class.
Here are some other tight ends to watch:
Pat Freiermuth, Penn State
Freiermuth has been named as a potential late first-round pick, but there’s a chance he could still be available in the second round for the Panthers. While at Penn State, he caught a pass in 29 straight games and had 16 touchdown receptions in his college career, most by a Nittany Lion tight end. The Panthers staff has plenty of ties to Penn State and can learn everything they need to about him.
Hunter Long, Boston College
Long participated in the Senior Bowl in January, but was coached by the Miami Dolphins staff. Either way, the Boston College tight end could be a good fit for Carolina.
In 2020, he caught 57 passes for 685 and five touchdowns. Long can handle a high volume of passes and “scrambles open for his quarterback” as NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein described. He needs to work on his competitiveness and be more aggressive with his play, but as a receiver, there’s a plenty to like.
Tre’ McKitty, Georgia
McKitty put together a solid week at the Senior Bowl working with the Panthers staff. He may not start in the NFL right away and has some work to do as a blocker, but his impressive grabs in Mobile were hard to ignore.
Kenny Yeboah, Ole Miss
Yeboah was recruited by Panthers coach Matt Rhule to Temple and played for him during the 2016 season, before Rhule and his staff left for Baylor. He briefly committed to transfer to Baylor after the 2019 season with the Owls, but then Rhule took the job in Carolina.
He finished second on Ole Miss team in receptions (27) and receiving yards (524), despite sitting out the last two games to prepare for the draft. The connection to the Panthers is there.
The best option for the Panther is to find a tight end through the draft that can continue to develop and contribute to the offense early. The strength of this draft class after Pitts may be not be getting much attention, but there is still some talent there.
Because of the lack of experience in the tight end room currently, adding both a rookie and a veteran player could make sense for the offense in the short term. Signing a player like Cook and drafting a tight end on Day 2 or 3 would give the Panthers someone who is reliable and experienced, in addition to a young player for years to come. Whether it is through the draft, free agency or a combination, the position needs to be a priority.