Panthers counting on Greg Olsen, but what if TV deal is irresistible?

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen could have a fruitful career after football as a broadcaster. Could it come sooner than expected? Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Greg Olsen has the talent and charisma that make him one of the best tight ends in the NFL when healthy, and a natural leader for the Carolina Panthers.

Those characteristics also make him a natural for television after his playing career ends.

That’s why Olsen’s name keeps coming up since Jason Witten announced last week he was leaving his job as lead analyst on ESPN’s Monday Night Football after one season to return to Dallas to play tight end.

Call it the curse of being good, maybe even great, at multiple jobs.

Olsen told ESPN.com last month that his focus was on rehabbing from surgery on his right foot and returning to the elite level he performed at from 2014 to '16, when he became the first tight end in NFL history to record three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said last week that Olsen “has told me he wants to play." Rivera said that at the NFL combine, but it was shortly before Witten’s announcement.

The Panthers, according to a league source, are moving forward with offseason plans that include Olsen. There would be shock at Bank of America Stadium if that changed.

However, other sources close to the situation said Witten's decision has created more uncertainty about Olsen’s future. The MNF job rarely comes open, if that's the role he's being considered to fill. Fox Sports also reportedly is pursuing Olsen, which gives him contract leverage that might not be there a season from now.

Olsen, who turns 34 on Monday, has an eye on broadcasting after football. Even he didn’t completely slam the door on television last month when expressing his commitment to playing. He used the term “right now" when talking about his mindset on playing in 2019. Regarding a job in the booth, he added, “I’d be lying if you say you don’t ever close the door to those things."

This isn’t to suggest Olsen's desire to play has decreased. It is to suggest there’s a lot more to be considered.

It wasn’t until late April, shortly after the NFL draft and with top free agents signed, that Witten announced he was retiring to go to the MNF booth.

If Olsen follows a similar path, the good news for the Panthers is they’re in much better shape for life without Olsen than they would have been a year ago. Ian Thomas, a fourth-round pick out of Indiana last year, showed potential after Olsen reinjured his foot in the 2018 opener against Dallas.

Thomas finished with 36 catches for 333 yards and two touchdowns. Chris Manhertz, a former basketball player at Canisius, also has progressed to the point the Panthers gave him a two-year deal before he hit free agency.

So if Carolina had to add a third tight end to replace Olsen, it could do so in free agency or through the draft. That’s not ideal. But it is a much better situation than a year ago, when Olsen auditioned for the MNF job before Witten got it.

Carolina’s ideal plan would be for Olsen and Thomas to become to quarterback Cam Newton what Olsen and Jeremy Shockey were in 2011. Shockey had 37 catches for 455 yards and four touchdowns that season, and Olsen had 45 catches for 540 yards and five touchdowns.

Rivera painted that picture when asked about the next step for Thomas.

“Just going to next level in terms of being a more consistent player," Rivera said at the combine. “He made a couple of big plays, then disappeared a little bit, then made a couple. We want him to be able to step to the forefront and be a great complement with Greg Olsen.

“Both of those guys can be very dynamic, [like] my first two seasons here. We had a pretty good combination of tight ends, and I think we’re getting back to that right now.”

There would be salary-cap implications should Olsen leave that would have an impact on Carolina’s 2019 plans. Olsen has two years left on his current deal, so his contract would count against the salary cap in the same way as if he were released. Olsen is set to count $6,662,500 against the 2019 cap. The team would recoup $2,962,500 of that should he retire with a post-June 1 designation.

The Panthers likely would pursue the return of a portion of Olsen’s signing bonus equal to the unplayed portions of the contract. That way, the money no longer would count against the cap. Olsen received a signing bonus of $11.1 million last offseason, when he signed a two-year, $17.1 million extension with $12,115,000 guaranteed. Carolina’s cap consequences could fluctuate based on when it recoups bonus money.

As they say in TV, stay tuned.