The 2011 NFL season might be remembered as the year the tight end position changed forever.
Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots and Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints played key roles for their teams, and in the process have other teams reconfiguring their offenses to the evolving role of the tight end.
If an offense wants to thrive in today's NFL, a tight end who can not only block, but make big receptions from different areas of the field, is basically a necessity.
The days of the one-dimensional tight end are probably over.
In Carolina, head coach Rob Rivera appears to understand the changing role of tight ends, and in a division that may need 10 wins to make the postseason, it's crucial to make the proper adjustments now rather than later.
Optimistic about his chances this year, starting tight end Greg Olsen has recognized this shift in offensive strategy, and looks to stand on the list of elite players at his position.
"What Gronkowski and Graham have been able to do in two years-those are the two guys you hear a lot about, deservedly so," Olsen said, according to charlotteobserver.com. "They've played well. They've been productive. And at the end of the day, that's what you get judged on."
In the midst of potential stardom from quarterback Cam Newton, Olsen can anticipate being a major contributor for the 2012 season considering that Rivera likes to throw the ball on nearly every down.
In 2011, Olsen had 45 receptions for 540 receiving yards on the Chicago Bears, a traditionally conservative offense.
While he is sure he will not be Newton's top target the way Gronkowski is with Tom Brady, Olsen wants to increase not only his role on offense, but his overall production on the field.
It's not so much about the stats, but making the most of the opportunities.
The faster and stronger a tight end is, the more difficult it is for opposing defenses to cover and bring them down. Linebackers may have to think twice about blitzing when a quarterback can easily dump the ball off to a tight end, who has the strength and speed to break tackles by safeties, let alone cornerbacks.
Rivera will look to utilize Olsen as a threat to the defensive strategy, and will use his speed to make him more of a receiver than a blocker.
Should he stay injury-free, and Newton lives up to expectations, Olsen could be on his way to a monster season, and may rack up serious stats in the NFC South.
With Jeremy Shockey gone, Olsen won't face serious competition from other tight ends on the Panthers' roster. It's his starting job to lose, and he will likely hold onto it.
"This will be his first real opportunity to step up and be the guy," Rivera said. "You watch him catch footballs, you watch him run routes, and you see those traits that he can fit right into that group.
"I think he can be right there with them."