Panthers TEs: Who will be Carolina’s top tight end in 2023?

Carolina Panthers tight end Stephen Sullivan, right, battles in an attempt to make a pass reception against Detroit Lions linebacker Chris Board, left, during second quarter action at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, December 24, 2022 in Charlotte, NC.

Carolina Panthers tight end Stephen Sullivan, right, battles in an attempt to make a pass reception against Detroit Lions linebacker Chris Board, left, during second quarter action at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday, December 24, 2022 in Charlotte, NC.

It’s time for the Panthers to find a franchise tight end.

Like quarterback or left tackle, tight end has become a position championship teams covet, and into which they pour resources. Either Travis Kelce or Rob Gronkowski has started five of the past six Super Bowls. This year, three of the four conference championship teams featured the three highest-paid tight ends in the NFL.

Carolina hasn’t had a difference-making tight end since Greg Olson. This season, tight ends Ian Thomas, Tommy Tremble and Giovanni Ricci combined for 471 yards on 48 catches. That stat line — three players combined — ranks 15th among all tight ends, behind Bears tight end Cole Kmet.

The Panthers need to retake control of the middle of the field next season. Here are options Carolina can explore at tight end in free agency and the draft:

Impending Free Agents

TE Stephen Sullivan (Re-signed)

As the year progressed, Stephen Sullivan earned more pass-catching opportunities with the Panthers. From Week 11 on, Sullivan played at least 15% of the team’s offensive snaps in each game. However, the increased opportunities did not turn into offensive production. Sullivan did not record a catch after his 33-yard reception in Week 8.

Carolina’s front office wants to develop Sullivan. He is a lengthy pass catcher who could present defensive matchup problems in the right system.

FB Giovanni Ricci (Re-signed)

Giovanni Ricci is one of the more versatile players on the Panthers’ roster. According to Pro Football Focus he played 22 snaps in the backfield, 122 at tight end and another 15 in the slot. Ricci is not a game-changer, but like Sullivan, he can help the Panthers offense in multiple ways via a variety of formations.

Under Contract

Ian Thomas

Last offseason, the Panthers re-signed Ian Thomas to a team-friendly three-year contract worth $16.5 million. Thomas caught 21 passes for 197 yards and did not score a touchdown. Though the Panthers’ offense ran a league-low 976 plays, Thomas’ 9.4 yards-per-catch was the second-highest of his five-year career.

He’s a stout blocker capable of delivering punishing hits at the point of attack in the running game. Thomas is a quality No. 2 tight end who would benefit from Carolina adding a true No. 1 option next to him.

Tommy Tremble

Carolina drafted Tommy Tremble with the No. 83 pick in 2021 draft. Tremble caught 19 passes for 174 yards and three touchdowns this season. If the Panthers target a tight end this offseason then the room could quickly grow crowded.

Regardless, Tremble must find a way to separate himself from the other Panthers’ tight ends this offseason as he enters Year 3.

Draft Outlook

Sam LaPorta, Iowa

There are no Kyle Pitts-like-tight-end prospects in the 2023 draft. But that does not mean Carolina cannot accurately identify a Day 2 tight end with Pro Bowl upside.

Iowa prospect Sam LaPorta fits that description. Over the past two season, LaPorta led the Hawkeyes in receiving yards. He nearly doubled the production of the team’s next leading receiver. He’s creative with the ball in his hands. According to Pro Football Focus, Iowa ran 10 screens for him this season. LaPorta did most of his damage underneath, running crossing routes and sitting in zone coverage holes.

He caught 53 passes for 592 yards and broke 14 tackles. His 7.3-yard average depth of target is low but that could be because of Iowa’s limited vertical offense. LaPorta is projected to be a Round 3 selection.

Dalton Kincaid, Utah

The Panthers may have to get aggressive if they want to select Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid. He plays like a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, evident by his FBS-leading 70 catches for 890 yards. He is projected to be a Round 2 pick.

Kincaid recorded just two drops on his 109 catchable passes, according to PFF. He’s a natural receiver with a ready-made route tree. Kincaid may not develop into a capable NFL blocker, but his playmaking should make up for his shortcomings upfront.

Potential Free Agent Options

Dalton Schultz, Dallas Cowboys

Carolina may be in a position to pay a veteran tight end this offseason. Rather than wait for a rookie to develop, an established pass catcher like Dalton Schultz would immediately add legitimacy to the Panthers’ tight end room.

Schultz will likely ask for top-of-the-TE-market-range money. The top-five salary range for tight ends is about $14 million per year. That number should be too steep for Carolina. But if Schultz does not find the market he’s seeking then he suddenly becomes a value.

His 577 receiving yards on 57 catches ranked 11th among qualified tight ends. He was a reliable red-zone target for Dak Prescott, catching three touchdowns in two playoff games this year.

Mike Gesicki, Miami Dolphins

Like Schultz, Gesicki does his best work in the slot. The Dolphins placed the franchise tag on Gesicki last year but are not expected to do so again. According to Spotrac, Gesicki should sign this offseason for nearly half the AAV (average annual value) of Schultz.

Geiscki caught 52 passes for 362 yards this season. His seven catches of 20-plus yards matched Schultz and Jets tight end Tyler Conklin.

Hailing from Minnesota, Ellis L. Williams joined the Observer in October 2021 to cover the Carolina Panthers. Prior, he spent two years reporting on the Browns for Plain Dealer. Having escaped cold winters, he’s thrilled to consume football, hoops, music and movies within the Queen City.

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