Ian Thomas up first as Panthers reach end of Greg Olsen era

McCaffrey sad to lose Olsen as a teammate (0:47)

Christian McCaffrey reacts to tight end Greg Olsen and the Panthers mutually agreeing to part ways. (0:47)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and his longtime security blanket, tight end Greg Olsen, went out for an emotional farewell dinner this past weekend in Miami.

The moment was captured on camera by TMZ as the two, accompanied by Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey, departed the restaurant two days before Super Bowl LIV.

Olsen, who earlier on Friday announced he and the Panthers had reached a mutual agreement to part with one year left on his contract, called it the “end-of-an-era dinner.”

For Olsen, the future is reasonably clear. He’ll either play for another team, likely a Super Bowl contender, or step into the broadcast booth. He reportedly has several offers on the table in broadcasting, including one from Fox Sports, which brought him to Super Bowl LIV as a guest analyst.

It’s also clear that 23-year-old Ian Thomas is first up as Olsen’s replacement. The former Indiana tight end was selected in the fourth round of the 2018 draft.

For 30-year-old Newton and the Panthers, the future is not as clear. He insisted during radio interviews in Miami that he wants to remain with Carolina as he enters the final year of his contract.

He believes that the Lisfranc foot injury that forced him to miss the final 14 games this past season will not be an issue moving forward and that he’s still capable of playing at a high level.

He told the CBS Sports Radio Network he felt inspired after recent meetings with general manager Marty Hurney and owner David Tepper.

He said on ESPN’s Marty and McGee podcast that he has “no worries” that he’ll be wearing a Carolina uniform in 2020.

It’s not that simple, though. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, citing a source, said the Panthers want to see Newton work out on the field in March, when he should be fully recovered from the surgery, to see what he can do.

“Then we’ll see what happens,” the source told Fowler.

A league source close to the situation told me that he believes Carolina will keep Newton in a “prove it” year.

However, the Panthers are keeping their options open. They understand that even with a $21.1 million cap figure, a healthy Newton would be a relative bargain in 2020. On the other hand, they also know that a healthy Newton could provide good trade value as the team rebuilds under new coach Matt Rhule and that the $19.1 million saved in cap space could be useful in that rebuild.

And this is a total rebuild. The retirement of Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and the decision to move on from Olsen is a definitive sign of that.

Olsen, 34, believes he “can still play,” as he said on social media Saturday night.

The tweet is a strong indication that Olsen still wants to play for a contender. He made it clear in the final week of the season that he didn’t want to be part of a team in an obvious rebuild.

Regardless of what happens with Newton, this is the end of an era. He and Olsen were one of the most potent combinations in the league from 2011 to 2016, particularly 2014-16, when Olsen became the first tight end in NFL history to have 1,000 yards receiving in three consecutive years.

Their chemistry was a big reason the Panthers made the Super Bowl in 2015 and Newton was the league MVP. Olsen had a career-best 1,104 yards receiving and seven touchdowns on 77 catches that season.

Whether Newton can create that kind of chemistry with Thomas remains to be seen. Thomas did catch 36 passes for 333 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. Olsen missed seven games with a foot injury.

Thomas, 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, has all the tools to be a top-notch tight end in any system. Olsen said as much when Thomas was selected after South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst (first round) and South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert (second round) in the draft.

“It’s hard to believe any of those guys are much better than Ian,” Olsen said at the time. "He's strong enough. He can engage at the line of scrimmage. He's smooth. He's faster than you think he is. He catches the ball well. So I think Ian has a chance to have all the traits to be a complete guy.”

So don’t look for the Panthers, who also have Chris Manhertz on the roster, to spend the seventh pick of the draft on Olsen’s replacement. They’re more likely to spend it on a replacement for Kuechly -- or Newton, should they decide to move on.

“Everything else is pretty much in my own destiny for that,” Newton said on the Marty and McGee podcast. “I’m in the position now where I told Coach that you won’t find nobody more dedicated and probably more hungry than myself. And not only to prove to him and the fans but to prove to myself that I’m still capable of playing at a high level.”