Why Greg Olsen Is the Most Valuable Carolina Panther in 2014

The Panthers offense was the butt of every joke this offseason, but it's currently the glue that holds together a first-place team.

The Carolina Panthers were the butt of every joke this summer, as their depleted wide receiver corps (that at one point was headlined by players with approximately as many combined NFL catches as Warren Sapp) stood out like a sore thumb on an offense led by an exciting talent in Cam Newton.

But seemingly lost among the jokes and hot takes was the presence of Greg Olsen, one of the unsung heroes of the NFL, and a player that was more than capable of taking on a bigger role for a team in need of difference makers. Now, six games into the season, Olsen is reminding everyone of his presence through his play on the field, and he's become the most important player on the Carolina Panthers as they seek to claw their way to the top of the weak NFC South.

Rising to the Occasion

Olsen arrived in Carolina in 2011, and played alongside Jeremy Shockey on a team that had a younger Steve Smith and a healthy Jonathan Stewart getting a lot of targets. He still made an impact on that team, but he didn't have the same role he holds now.

Because as time passed, as his teammates left or got older and less effective, Olsen became a bigger part of the offense and improved his performance, helping his young quarterback remain consistent despite a sharp drop in receiving options.

Steve Smith's production dropped sharply in 2012, and when you look at Olsen's statistics, you can see that he was part of the reason why the Panthers kept rolling despite Smith's decline. In 2013, Smith was even worse, while Olsen remained steady, and was a key part of the team's 12-4 record.

YearReceptionsReception NEPTargetsReception NEP per TargetSuccess Rate
2014 Projected88102.191360.7590.91%

With Smith and Brandon LaFell gone, Olsen's numbers have moved forward even more, eclipsing everything he's done in Carolina or Chicago. In fact, he's on pace to set a career high in every statistical category, both using our Net Expected Points (NEP) data (seen above), or using standard, raw data.

Most Valuable Panther

Olsen plays the tight end position, typically reserved for players who aren't quite as athletic as their wide receiver peers. So it makes sense that their overall production isn't quite as strong as their teammates who split out wider and aren't tasked with blocking defensive ends from time to time.

But all of his numbers are on par with his flashy wide receiver colleague Kelvin Benjamin, who is off to a fantastic start as a rookie, but is failing to out-do the veteran tight end according to our data. The two have combined to give Cam Newton viable options in the passing game, which has led to Newton's statistics being on par for a career year (again, according to our metrics).

Newton's drop backs net a positive NEP result 4% more often now than they have in previous seasons, and he's averaging .05 NEP more per drop back than his previous career high. That's in large part because of the play of Olsen, who is setting his own career highs in support of his quarterback.

Olsen currently ranks third among tight ends and 14th among all pass catchers in Reception NEP in his age 29 season, which isn't often a time at which tight ends (or any skill position players) have breakout years. Players approaching 30 are thought to be past their athletic prime, but it certainly doesn't seem as though Olsen is slowing down.

The Panthers currently lead the NFC South, and are succeeding in spite of a defense that has taken a big step back compared to last season. The Carolina defense was among the best in every category last year, but currently ranks 24th in our Adjusted Defensive NEP rankings, on par with the Raiders and Packers.

Which is why Olsen and the offense have been so important, because they've had to overcome a bad defense in a year where the offense was thought to be too thin at the receiver position to succeed. Add in the injuries at running back (and quarterback to begin the season), and it makes what Olsen is doing even more impressive.

Greg Olsen is a crucial member of the Panthers' offense, and they'll need him to keep up his current pace if they want to keep their lead on the division and make another trip to the playoffs. The phase of the team that was once the butt of jokes is now standing out as their biggest strength, and it's because of a career year from their veteran tight end.