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Panthers better hope TE Greg Olsen stays healthy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The closer it got to the No. 8 pick of the NFL draft the clearer it became the Carolina Panthers would take Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey or Alabama tight end O.J. Howard.

McCaffrey obviously was their first choice, as they selected the 20-year-old for the versatility and speed he would offer to the offense.

That wasn’t a surprise.

What was a surprise is that general manager Dave Gettleman didn’t use one of his seven picks on a tight end in what was a deep year at the position.

Not even in the seventh round, when he took place-kicker Harrison Butker out of Georgia Tech.

The organization addressed the increasing need to find a future replacement for three-time Pro Bowl selection Greg Olsen on Tuesday when it signed project Desean Smith, a tryout player at a recent rookie camp. It was yet another sign the Panthers appear comfortable dealing in projects at this position. They’ve signed several over the past couple of seasons in Eric Wallace, Chris Manhertz and Scott Simonson.

Manhertz is a former basketball player. Wallace is a former Australian Rules Football player.

Simonson is a fourth-year undrafted player out of Assumption College.

All that stands between Carolina and position catastrophe is Ed Dickson, who has 37 receptions and four touchdowns over the past three seasons. He still hasn’t proven he can be the guy if something should happen to Olsen, who has played in every game for Carolina the past five seasons.

That has to be a concern

Olsen has 27.3 percent of Carolina’s 11,663 receiving yards and 25.8 percent of the team’s 241 receptions the past three seasons. No other tight end in the NFL has a higher percentage during that time.

Tennessee’s Delanie Walker is second in receptions at 23.4 percent. Kansas City’s Travis Kelce ranks second in receiving yards at 26.4 percent. Only four tight ends are over 20 percent in either category.

New England’s Rob Gronkowski, considered by many the best tight end in the NFL, has 15.4 percent of the Patriots’ catches and 20.9 percent of their receiving yards since 2014.

So Olsen is a valuable cog in Carolina’s offense, arguably the most valuable behind quarterback Cam Newton. He’s not likely to be replaced by a project.

Howard would have been a nice complement and future replacement. He was a steal for NFC South rival Tampa Bay with the 19th pick.

That the Panthers selected McCaffrey and Ohio State receiver Curtis Samuel in the first two rounds should lessen the stress on Olsen to carry the load because of what they can do as receivers out of the backfield and from the slot position. If teams focus on them you might actually see Olsen’s production rise.

McCaffrey and Samuel also might lessen the blow it would be to the offense should Olsen get hurt and miss extended time.

But none can replace Olsen. Nobody on the roster can.

At some point over the next few years, that has to be addressed with something besides projects.