Tight-knit tight ends

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- When a flurry of fantasy football drafts take place in the weeks to come, the Panthers' trio of tight ends likely won't have their names often called out.

But while the way Jeff King, Dante Rosario and Gary Barnidge evenly distribute their receptions and relentlessly distribute blocks in the running game doesn't appeal to fantasy owners, their continued efforts are a dream come true from the Panthers' perspective.

"We know that tight end isn't always that star position, but we realize that the roles that we perform make a big contribution to what the offense is doing," Rosario said. "If you look back at any successful team, that's the key commodity they have, that they realize there's something more at stake than just one person's personal stats.

"It's about what a team does. That's what it's all about."

Collectively, the trio put up numbers that were worthy of being a fantasy draft pick in 2009. Their combined 63 catches for 755 yards and five touchdowns rivaled the likes of longtime fantasy stalwarts Jeremy Shockey and Todd Heap, as well as fast-rising newcomers Jermichael Finley and Zach Miller.

Individually, however, no one had more than 26 catches (Rosario), 313 yards (Rosario) or three touchdowns (King).

"There have been games where we've collectively gotten the ball as many as 10 times. If there was just one of us out there, that would be a 10-catch game," Rosario said. "There are some offenses out there like that – Dallas with (Jason) Witten, or San Diego with (Antonio) Gates – but we realize what our role is and how we help this team out with both the passing game and the running game."

With the Panthers ranking as one of just three NFL teams in 2009 to average more than 150 rushing yards per game, the tight end trio understands that its top priority is blocking for DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Co.

"We're built to run the football," King said. "We have some great running backs and a great offensive line, and we're going to win games by running the football and controlling the clock and then making big plays in the passing game when called upon.

"The main thing is we've got to make our contribution when called upon. We might not get as many chances, but we have to make it count when we do."

One line of logic follows that given the Panthers' lack of experience at wide receiver behind Steve Smith and the need to improve the passing game, the tight ends will see their numbers called more frequently in 2010.

"It's been well-documented we're trying to improve our passing game, and I think those guys are all capable," head coach John Fox said. "We just have to get them involved a little bit more."

Whether or not the group or any individual catches more balls in 2010, the tight ends will remain valuable, and they must remain versatile. They have to understand the inner workings of nearly every position on offense because at times they act as offensive linemen, as wide receivers and even as lead blockers in the backfield.

They have versatility in their backgrounds. King played basketball at Virginia Tech; Rosario was recruited as a linebacker at Oregon; and Barnidge played on four special teams units for the Panthers last season and could add a fifth this season.

"I think we all have our own special traits," Barnidge said. "We're all good at everything, and then some of us are better in one thing than the other, and that's what complements us as a group."

The stats aren't the only thing that's in balance. There's also a delicate balance between competition and camaraderie, one that allows each member of the trio to take his lack of fantasy stats in stride.

"Everyone would love to play every snap, but we have a very cohesive unit," Rosario said. "Our position coach, Geep (Chryst), is a great coach to have, and he sees us all as being starters. That's a good thing to hear. He treats each of his guys with the utmost respect, and he realizes the work that we put in, day in and day out.

"We have a close group -- Gary, Kinger and I, this will be our third year together -- and we've grown quite a good relationship."

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