SPARTANBURG — Ron Rivera said the Carolina Panthers plan to use their tight ends more in the passing game this season.
The Panthers added free agent Ed Dickson this offseason to go along with Greg Olsen, giving them a pair of receiving options at tight end similar to what they had in Rivera’s first season in 2011 with Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.
“Absolutely,” Rivera said when asked if the moved was designed to replicate three years ago. “You want that double threat.”
The Panthers became a little too predictable when the team paired Olsen with Ben Hartsock, who was known almost exclusively for his run-blocking ability.
“The way it was (last season) it’s like here’s one guy who is your primary blocker and here’s one guy that’s your primary receiver,” Rivera said. “Now we bring Ed Dickson in and you say, ‘Which one is which?”’
Rivera likes that both Dickson and Olsen are versatile enough to block and still be downfield threats.
Dickson has shown good speed in training camp and has the potential to be a big-time option in the passing game. He caught 54 passes for 528 yards and five touchdowns in 2011 with the Baltimore Ravens.
Dickson’s numbers dropped off the past two years – he averaged 23 receptions for 249 yards and one touchdown per season – but the Panthers view the fourth-year veteran as a big pickup.
Rivera believes Dickson will be a perfect complement to Olsen when the Panthers go to two-receiver sets because it will create mismatches.
It worked in 2011.
Olsen and Shockey combined for 82 receptions for 995 yards and nine touchdowns that season – Cam Newton’s first at quarterback.
The Panthers didn’t re-sign Shockey in 2012, instead adding Hartsock to the mix.
Hartsock didn’t catch a pass last season. Olsen, however, had a career season with a team-high 73 receptions for 816 yards and six touchdowns.
“We are trying to do those things that we did when we were first here,” said Rivera, who is entering his fourth season with the Panthers. “Last year Olsen led us in receptions, so what can we do if we have another vertical threat tight end?”
Dickson signed a one-year deal with the Panthers in part because he could play with Newton and Olsen.
“It was an easy decision for me,” Dickson said.
Carolina also added free agent tight end Mike McNeill, who is primarily a blocker, to go along with young prospects Brandon Williams and D.C. Jefferson.
Rivera said earlier in camp that tight end could be the toughest position on the team to make cuts this summer.
“We have five tight ends we really like,” Rivera said.
The Panthers are also hoping the tight end position eases some of the pain of parting ways with their top four wide receivers this offseason.
Carolina released Steve Smith, the franchise’s career leader in receptions, yards receiving and touchdowns, and allowed Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon to leave via free agency.
Carolina added free agents Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood and drafted Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State, but the group has been an easy target for critics who feel the team didn’t do enough to restock and doesn’t have a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
“It’s kind of been the story line of the offseason,” Olsen said. “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. I think we feel confident about our group.”