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Don’t sleep on Greg Olsen

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Why did Seattle sign Greg Olsen? The Seahawks certainly did not need a tight end. They have seven on roster right now. He wasn’t cheap. Olsen ranks seventh among Seahawks in cap hit for 2020. Nor would I be inclined to call him reliable. He’s missed 18 games over the last three seasons. Plus it’s well known that he will become a highly-paid broadcaster as soon as he retires.

When he was signed I emailed Mookie something to the effect of “Olsen in February. Hollister in November.” Stacking players with extensive injury histories seems a questionable strategy. If the injuries were minor, or of the nagging variety, Olsen and Will Dissly could maybe spell each other, but both have dealt with major, season-ending injuries. So, really, what the heck?

Field Gulls shouldn’t be Pravda for the Seahawks organization, or even Izvestia. We’re fans and we advocate for fans. Fans, if indirectly, are paying Olsen’s contract. I do not doubt many of you could conceive of better uses for that cap space. But it’s a little too near the season for me to feel pessimistic. And so I wanted to offer a kind of rationalization for his signing. Better, since rationalization stinks of negative connotation, I wanted to explain why I think this signing is greatly underestimated.

Greg Olsen is not Washed Up

I suspect you know that Olsen has suffered two Jones fractures to the same foot, and that even one such injury could have jeopardized his career. Less well known is how much he played or how well he played in 2019. Prior to suffering a concussion in Week 13, Olsen had played 686 of his team’s 757 snaps on offense, or about 91%. Olsen had 530 receiving yards in those games. Had he maintained that pace, he would have finished with 771 for the season. That would have ranked seventh in the NFL behind Austin Hooper among tight ends.

Olsen however was not efficient. He ranked 29th in DVOA and 29th in DYAR. Well behind Dissly, but also behind Luke Willson and Jacob Hollister. But that’s an unfair and largely meaningless comparison. Olsen caught passes from Kyle Allen, Cam Newton and Will Grier. Carolina had the second worst passing offense in the NFL last season. Therefore I think it’s best to compare how Olsen performed relative to his teammates.

Panthers passing DVOA: -19.8%

Panthers DVOA by receiver

Christian McCaffrey 34.8%

Brandon Zylstra 8.4%

D.J. Moore 3.2%

Greg Olsen -6.5%

Curtis Samuel -15.1%

Ian Thomas -27.1%

Jarius Wright -39.6%

Chris Hogan -42.0%

Thomas is of particular interest because he started in both games Olsen missed. He also started in place of Olsen in 2018. Kid has a pretty good reputation and enters 2020 as Carolina’s starting tight end. Yet Olsen handily outperformed him both seasons.

Olsen vs. Thomas

2018: Olsen +13.7%

2019: Olsen +20.6%

That’s not what you would expect of a player who’s washed up. He was still a major part of his team’s offense, and among receivers in that offense, he was relatively efficient.

Greg Olsen is an In-line Tight End

If you, like me, respect Dissly but do not think he’s destined to make the Hall of Fame, it’s worth considering whether Dissly or the innate value of his position was the primary driver of his value these past two seasons. In 2018, Ed Dickson actually outperformed Dissly.

DVOA

Dissly: 30.6%

Dickson: 61.4%

Dickson is currently a free agent.

No member of the Seahawks was able to match or surpass Dissly’s efficiency in 2019, but it was a motley crew. Nick Vannett is a principally a blocking tight end. Hollister is effectively a slot receiver. And Willson’s signing seemed to be mostly about nostalgia. He had nine receptions in 10 games, including the playoffs.

It’s sort of football 101, but a team which stresses the opposing defense through a concerted rush attack complemented by deep shots should create opportunities for its tight ends. However, for that to work, it’s essential that the tight end can signal run through his alignment. I only watched one game of Olsen’s in preparation for this post, Carolina’s close loss to Green Bay, but Olsen frequently played on the line. While his blocking wasn’t impressive, exactly, it was competent. He fit, he worked, he was never exposed, and he didn’t look at all uncomfortable run blocking, pass blocking or releasing into a route.

Which means Seattle’s two deep at a vital position. In 2019, the Seahawks scrambled to replace Dissly, and I think they never really did. I’m not saying this couldn’t be otherwise explained, but consider these splits.

Week 1-5

ANY/A: 8.8

Sack %: 7.7%

Average Passing EPA per game: 13.16

Weeks 7-16

ANY/A: 6.3

Sack %: 8.9%

Average Passing EPA per game: 1.40

Seattle faced quite a few dominant defenses in Weeks 7-16, including San Francisco twice . That surely explains some of the difference. Attempting a more granular comparison isn’t likely to sort things out, I think. But, for those who think this may be nothing more than a trick, it’s also worth noting that Seattle’s season DVOA on offense, 17.1%, was considerably better than its weighted DVOA, 11.3%.

My gut reaction to Seattle signing Olsen was that the Seahawks had basically offered him a golden parachute. That he was here to be a mentor, start a few games, and maybe even call a few games for Seattle before the season was over. Put plainly: It was a bad signing. But I think I was wrong. I think the guy’s got something left to give, and a lot left to prove.

Olsen’s in a weird spot in his career. He currently ranks fifth all time in reception yards by a tight end, but if he were to retire today, in five years, he could rank tenth. The position has changed, a lot. Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are both one good season from overtaking him. Travis Kelce will need about two. Zach Ertz and Jared Cook are three good seasons away. Olsen’s made some oblique references to the fact in the many, many interviews he has conducted, but I think he wants to achieve whatever combination of individual and team success that’ll earn him a place in Canton. Right now, he’s a quintessential Hall of Very Good, borderline candidate.

He’s motivated, I hope, his injury history is concerning but not damning, he’s invaluable depth at a vital position in this offense, and I for one wouldn’t be surprised if he claimed the starting spot and ran with it. It was a long damn time ago, admittedly, but no other Seattle tight end can match his athleticism. Even tools monster Stephen Sullivan was slower, smaller and less agile. There’s a lot of scuttlebutt and bad intel working against Olsen, a lot of nagging doubts, and I get that. But there’s substantial evidence that he’s still good and could be a vital addition to Seattle’s offense.