(Leading up to the start of free agency on March 14, Panthers.com is looking at the state of each position group.)
POSITION REVIEW: Greg Olsen had played in 10 seasons worth of consecutive games when, in Week 2, he suffered a broken foot that cost him the next eight games. Ed Dickson filled in admirably during the extended absence, and Olsen did return to make an impact at times, but it was a lost season relatively speaking for Olsen personally having just become the first tight end in NFL history to post three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving campaigns.
STATS OF SIGNIFICANCE: Dickson, always at the ready but rarely involved heavily in the passing game, had 370 receiving yards in his first three seasons behind Olsen. Dickson had 374 yards in the nine games that Olsen missed (Olsen sat out one other game after coming off injured reserve).
WORTH WATCHING AGAIN: Dickson didn't provide the consistent threat that Olsen long has; his numbers were a bit deceiving because of one game – and what a game it was. Dickson's 57-yard catch at the Lions in Week 5, combined with an earlier 64-yarder made him the only player in franchise history with two 50-plus-yard catches in the same game.
TOP OFFSEASON STORYLINES: Olsen ended the season in good health and could return to dominance in 2018, but offenses constructed like Carolina's need more than one competent tight end. Dickson is set to become an unrestricted free agent. The Panthers' list of potential free agents also includess third-stringer Chris Manhertz, an exclusive rights free agent likely to come back but yet to make a consistent contribution.
HOPE FOR 2018: In 2015, Dickson re-signed with the Panthers one day after becoming a free agent, a reminder that players can still be an option even after the new league year begins. Whether it's Dickson or someone not previously associated with the Panthers, the team needs to pair someone with Olsen, who will turn 33 Monday.
Jimmy Graham is the cream of the free agency crop, and Eagles backup Trey Burton is an intriguing upside option. Speaking of intriguing, Tyler Eifert also is a free agent – a top-flight tight end when healthy who has played just 10 games over the past two seasons. The Panthers considered drafting Eifert back in 2013.
The draft class isn't eye-popping, with only a couple of candidates for first-round consideration. On the other end of the age spectrum, free agency features two players not too far from 40 who continued to contribute last season in Antonio Gates and Ben Watson.