Panthers' Greg Olsen feeling forgotten in top-TE conversation

Greg Olsen had more than 1,000 receiving yards for three consecutive seasons before a foot injury sidelined him for much of the past two years. Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Greg Olsen really didn’t need a reminder on Wednesday that after an offseason in which the Carolina Panthers worked to make the roster younger, he’s now the organization’s oldest player.

“Thank you," the 34-year-old Pro Bowl tight end said following Carolina’s second day of organized team activities. “Appreciate you pointing that out. ... Tricked them for another year to stick around.

“Not long ago, I was one of the young guys looking at the old guys and thinking, 'I can’t believe how old they are.'"

Not long ago, Olsen also was considered one of the best tight ends in the NFL, up there with New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce.

From 2014 to 2016, before a broken fifth metatarsal in his right foot led to him missing half of the past two seasons, Olsen became the first tight end in league history to have three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

Now that Gronkowski has retired and pundits are projecting who should be among the league’s best tight ends, Olsen would like for people to believe that despite his age and that injury, he shouldn’t be forgotten on those lists that for the most part exclude him.

“I still think from a productivity standpoint, I’m up there with anybody who has ever played," Olsen said.

When healthy, that is.

And Olsen is healthy again after having a second surgery on his foot to permanently repair the 2017 injury that was more of a temporary fix to get him back on the field for a late-season run to the playoffs.

“It’s been a bad two seasons," admitted Olsen, limited to 44 catches the past two seasons because of injuries. “Injuries are a part of this game. You go a long time without having to deal with it and then having kind of it dumped all on me at the same time was a quick change.

“I’m here now. I feel good. I feel ready to rock. I haven’t taken a lot of snaps over the last two years as I had prior, so maybe that will give me a little juice at this point in my career."

Olsen’s career to this point has been stellar. He ranks fifth all time among tight ends in receptions with 666, trailing only Tony Gonzalez (1,325), Jason Witten (1,152), Antonio Gates (955) and Shannon Sharpe (815).

A look at what he did from 2014 to 2016 alone is argument enough for not overlooking him as one of the best tight ends in the post-Gronkowski era.

Olsen had 241 catches for 3,185 yards and 16 touchdowns during that span. That’s 100 more catches, 979 yards and two more touchdowns than Gronkowski had during his final three seasons in which he missed 17 games due to injury.

Because of Gronkowski’s injuries, a more fair comparison for best active tight ends might be Kelce and Zach Ertz during the past three years. Kelce had 271 catches for 3,499 yards and 22 touchdowns. Ertz had 268 catches for 2,803 yards and 20 touchdowns.

But Olsen’s stats from 2014 to 2016 stack up with any other tight end still playing.

“There’s a lot more flashy, fun, celebrating [tight ends out there]," Olsen said. “But when you look at the stats and look at production, I think guys are surprised when they see the names up there."

Olsen had opportunities to leave the game for a career in television commentary the past couple of offseasons.

But ultimately, Olsen believed he had something to prove on the field. He still believes he can advance at least one more notch on the all-time receptions list, needing 150 catches to surpass Sharpe for fourth place.

With a contract that runs through 2020, there is time to get there if he can avoid another injury.

With the Panthers facing questions about quarterback Cam Newton’s right shoulder -- there's still no timetable for when he will throw -- a rebuilt offensive line and the transition defensively to more odd-man fronts, Olsen is the least of coach Ron Rivera’s worries.

“It’s good to watch him come back, especially after what he’s been through," Rivera said. “It speaks to the hard work he’s put in in terms of his rehab and just getting himself back on the football field."

The Panthers need Olsen not only for production but leadership in a locker room that lost team captains Thomas Davis (36, signed with San Diego), Ryan Kalil (34, retired) and Julius Peppers (39, retired).

“When it came down to it, I still feel I have a lot to accomplish in my career," Olsen said. “The last two years obviously haven’t been the way I want to close out a long career."

There’s no reason to think Olsen can’t be productive toward the end of his career. Gates has played in 73 games after turning 34, catching 236 passes for 2,948 yards and 29 touchdowns, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Gonzalez had 326 catches for 3,320 yards and 29 touchdowns after his 34th birthday.

So to forget Olsen in the post-Gronkowski conversation might be a mistake.

“We live in a production-based business," Olsen said. “At the end of my career, when you look back, whenever that time comes, if I can finish these last years out better than the last two, I’ll be up there with anybody.

“I want to go out on my terms and feel satisfied with my ending."