Football / Sports

Carolina Panthers: Greg Olsen ready to silence doubters

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen was zipping through channels on his way to Bank of America Stadium on Tuesday when he came upon a conversation about the NFC South on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike" show.

Discussing the Panthers, hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic wondered aloud who quarterback Cam Newton would throw to after the mass exodus at wide receiver during the offseason.

It was hardly new ground Greenberg and Golic were covering, but it moved Olsen to tweet that he was "getting tired of hearing 'Panthers have nobody for (Newton) to throw to.'"

When Olsen reports to the stadium Thursday morning for the official start of the Panthers' preseason activities, he'll find plenty of others in the locker room who are likewise sick of the cracks about the re-made receiving corps.

"It's kind of been the storyline of the offseason. Any time the Panthers have come up that's kind of been the first comment made by everybody. I think guys are just kind of tired of it," Olsen said Wednesday in a phone interview. "I think we feel confident about our group. I think people are eager to get there, get to work and put together what works for us as an offense."

The Panthers' turnover at wide receiver has been dissected, discussed and debated at length since March when all-time receiving leader Steve Smith was released and three other wideouts left via free agency.

During his first comments after the departures, Panthers coach Ron Rivera focused on replacing the 10 combined catches per game the Panthers lost, rather than trying to find a No. 1 receiver.

The three receivers charged with filling the void are veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant and rookie Kelvin Benjamin, the first-round pick from Florida State.

Cotchery and Avant have played a combined 18 seasons, with 126 career starts. And though they have only one 1,000-yard receiving season between them – Cotchery amassed 1,130 receiving yards in 2007 with the Jets – Olsen said the two bring a level of professionalism and experience that will be good for the young receivers.

"Those guys are productive, successful veterans in the NFL, and those guys don't just grow on trees," Olsen said. "I think people are going to be very happy with what they see out of those guys. I know the team is. ...

"Then you add a young guy like Kelvin to the mix, a little younger, bigger-body guy – I think it's going to be a mix of playing to everybody's strength."

Olsen expects the Panthers to be strong in the same areas that propelled them to a 12-win season last year, namely an efficient, balanced offense led by Newton and a dominant defense spearheaded by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

Even when they had Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn at receiver, the Panthers were not a quick-strike offense in 2013. Instead, they kept drives alive with a lot of third- and fourth-down conversions, controlled the clock (the Panthers were fifth in the league in time of possession) and kept the defense well-rested.

Olsen doesn't expect that to change.

"It's not a mystery. When we're at our best, we're a balanced offense," Olsen said. "We're not going to throw the ball 60 times a game. We might not throw 50 touchdowns. But we're going to win games, we're going to control the game.

"The sum of our parts is going to be very productive."

FUNDRAISING WITH EARNHARDT

Olsen and NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced a joint fundraising effort Wednesday to benefit the Levine Children's Hospital, where Olsen's son, T.J., was born with a congenital heart defect in 2012.

Earnhardt and Olsen are offering fans a chance to win what they're calling a "Weekend with the 88s," a play on Earnhardt's No. 88 car and Olsen's jersey number.

The raffle winner will meet both athletes and receive tours of Bank of America Stadium and JR Motorsports, as well as a round-trip helicopter ride from Charlotte to the Martinsville (Va.) Speedway for the Truck Series race (including garage passes and grandstand tickets) on Oct. 25.

The next day the winner will return to Charlotte for the Panthers' game against the Seattle Seahawks, and will receive sideline passes, parking passes and premium seats.

Raffle tickets cost $18.88 and are available at weekendwiththe88s.com through Sept. 30. A maximum of 8,888 tickets will be sold.

Olsen said he met Earnhardt several months ago, and was his guest at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. He said Earnhardt was receptive to the 88s fundraising theme immediately.

"It's been awesome," Olsen said.

NOTES

The Panthers added depth to their position of greatest need one day before the team reports for training camp.

Guard Fernando Velasco and center Kevin Matthews signed with Carolina on Wednesday. The team waived undrafted free agent center Jared Wheeler and linebacker Billy Boyko, who was listed as failing to disclose a physical condition.

Velasco can also play center. He started 11 games at center for the Steelers in 2013 before suffering a season-ending Achilles injury. Velasco was the 26th-ranked center in the NFL in 2013, according to the football analytic site Pro Football Focus.

Amini Silatolu and Trai Turner enter camp as the likely starters at guard. Edmund Kugbila and Garry Williams are coming off injuries and Chris Scott has battled conditioning problems since he joined the Panthers in 2013.

Matthews is the son of Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews. He went undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2010 and was signed by the Titans. He played in 14 games in 2012 but did not see action in 2013 after jumping from Tennessee to Washington's practice squad and back to the Titans.

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