Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero: Carolina Panthers’ Greg Olsen stands tall among great UM tight ends

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen listens to a question during Opening Night for the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in San Jose, Calif.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen listens to a question during Opening Night for the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in San Jose, Calif. AP

If you’re old enough to remember days before smartphones, you know that before the University of Miami was The U, it was Quarterback U because names such as Kelly, Kosar, Testaverde, Walsh, Erickson and Torretta won hearts and minds, national titles and Heisman trophies there.

But why hasn’t the University of Miami ever been recognized as Tight Ends U?

The tradition of tight end talent churned out by that football factory is impressive, with Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Jimmy Graham making their marks at Miami and then accounting for 11 Pro Bowl berths in the NFL.

And of all the tight ends who played at Miami, the one to turn in the most consistent career in the NFL so far is none of these. It’s Greg Olsen.

The best NFL tight end to come out of Tight End U.

Olsen is at Super Bowl 50 this week, along with his Carolina Panthers teammates, but that’s not what makes him stand out from the other outstanding tight ends to come out of Miami. After all Shockey not only played in two Super Bowls but won both while with the New York Giants and then the New Orleans Saints.

What makes Olsen, 30, arguably the best tight end to come out of Miami is he’s the best combination of performance, leadership and respect that the other great Miami tight ends lacked in one category or another.

Olsen is just a more complete contributor to his team on a more consistent basis.

Olsen, in his ninth season, has more career receptions than the others except Shockey, who holds a 547 to 542 career-catch advantage after having played 10 seasons. So Olsen will pass Shockey in that category next season, barring an unforeseen circumstance.

Olsen’s 6,292 receiving yards leads all the others. And his 49 touchdowns are second only to Graham, who has 53 scores in his six NFL seasons.

Piece it all together and you have a tight end who has been there for his quarterbacks, been productive for his team, gotten in the end zone a lot and done it over a long period of time.

And that has brought Olsen the respect of his teammates and opponents alike.

The Denver Broncos have played against San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce twice this season, so they know about playing against good tight ends. They also played against New England’s Rob Gronkowski twice, including two weeks ago in the AFC Championship Game.

How does Olsen compare with Gronk, who is generally considered the best tight end in the NFL?

“He’s not as big. I don’t believe he’s as fast, but he’s just as effective,” Denver safety T.J. Ward said. “I think he runs the better routes. They both have really good hands. I think they’re both very similar but just different builds and different speeds.”

Cornerback Aqib Talib spent part of his time in the New England games in coverage against Gronkowski. He might be assigned to be part of a double team on Olsen during Super Bowl 50.

“He’s got great hands,” Talib said. “He makes great traffic catches. He’s one of their go-to guys definitely.”

No doubt about that. When the Panthers lost No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in August, the team shifted the focus of its passing game. Benjamin led the Panthers with 73 catches for 1,008 yards in 2014.

Olsen led the team with 77 catches for 1,104 yards in 2015.

“I know with Greg, he is one of the smartest players that I have ever coached,” offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “He gets everything about the game. He understands how to find an edge each and every week. He communicates very well.

“He is great with [quarterback] Cam [Newton], and he tries to make sure he is going to do everything possible each week to be prepared, not leave any stone unturned, and I think that has shown up on game day.”

Olsen shows up way before game day ever arrives. Talk to Carolina players and they tell of core leaders who keep their locker room in order and the team pointed toward a common goal.

“I think the culture and the camaraderie in the locker room is really helping us out,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “What really takes us over the edge is the guys’ ability to embrace each other and pick each other up when things aren’t going well.

“No one freaks out or has a meltdown and that starts with some of our older guys that have been on this team like Ryan Kalil, Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen, who have set this culture.”

Olsen is a steadying force in the Carolina locker room. He’s a thinking man’s player. And because of that, he’s not to interested in getting into conversations about being great or better than other tight ends.

“My intent is never to go out and try to prove people anything,” Olsen said. “I feel like in my nine years, I’ve approached the game the same way year in and year out. I feel like my production and my consistency speaks for itself. So there’s nothing else that has to be said about that.

“Nothing changed with my preparation going into this season. Obviously, losing Kelvin was a huge blow for us. Anytime you loose a 1,000-yard receiver as a rookie, it’s hard to replace. I think again it goes back to the epitome of what we are as a group or what we are as a team and guys understanding about buying in and perfecting their roles.

“And here we are in the Super Bowl without maybe some of the glamorous or high-profile names at receiver or tight end. But we feel we’ll put our production and our group against anybody.”

As far as great University of Miami tight ends, put Greg Olsen up against any of them.

Armando Salguero: 305-376-4993, @ArmandoSalguero

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