Hayden Hurst would give Panthers second threat at tight end, leverage with Greg Olsen

Prospect Profile: Hayden Hurst (0:33)

Todd McShay considers former South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst as one of the two best tight ends in the 2018 draft class. (0:33)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen knows how it feels to be the hotshot rookie drafted to replace the veteran. He was that guy in 2007 when the Chicago Bears made him the 31st pick out of Miami with veteran Desmond Clark entering his ninth year.

He remembers how tough Clark made it on him early in the transition and how it wasn’t until his third year that he became the starter.

“He wasn’t the guy that rolled over and played dead,’’ Olsen said of Clark. “I’ve always made that vow to myself that if I’m ever in that position, regardless of how much success I’ve had.’’

This could be the year Olsen, 33, is in that position.

In Tuesday night’s ESPN.com NFL Nation mock draft, I selected South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst as the player Carolina will take with the 24th pick on Thursday night.

There was the option of selecting Alabama’s Calvin Ridley, the top wide receiver, or the third-best safety in Stanford’s Justin Reid. Both would fill big needs.

Hurst just made too much sense on many levels, many for the same reason the Bears went with Olsen in 2007.

First, the Panthers don’t have a proven tight end behind Olsen, a three-time Pro Bowl selection. Hurst could be that guy, giving quarterback Cam Newton two big targets like he had during his rookie season of 2011 with Olsen and Jeremy Shockey.

Newton threw for a career-best 4,051 yards that season and completed 60 percent of his passes, the second-best percentage of his career. He’s at his best throwing up the seam to Olsen.

Newton has completed 58.2 percent of his passes the past six seasons, including a career-worst 52.9 percent in 2016 and 59.1 last season.

If the Panthers were to select Hurst, Olsen said he would be “all about that.’’

“But at the same time my mentality has never changed,’’ he said. “My mentality has been every single year you’ve got to be really good to take my targets, you’ve got to be really good to take my playing time. That’s just how I prepare myself.’

“I would do everything to answer questions and give him pointers. But at the same time, just like Desmond, you don’t roll over and play dead. You’re going to have to earn this spot here and kick me out of here.’’

Ridley would be an intriguing pick because of his ability to create separation like few, if any, other receivers in the draft. But Ridley is more of a possession receiver than a speedster and what the Panthers really need at that position is a speedster.

Devin Funchess can be the possession receiver, and Carolina traded for Torrey Smith to help stretch the field.

You also have to consider that Olsen is getting closer to the end of his career and this is the last year of his contract. He wants an extension, and he’ll want to be paid among the top three tight ends in the league. That’ll cost the Panthers in the range of $9 million a year.

That’s a lot for a team that could be over the salary cap in 2019.

With Hurst, general manager Marty Hurney would have leverage to say, "This is what we can offer, and if you don’t take it, then we have a first-round draft pick ready to fill your shoes."

Olsen also missed nine games last season. He’s at that age at which injuries could become a factor. As well as Ed Dickson played at times a year ago, he wasn’t a consistent weapon like Olsen.

Dickson also is in Seattle now.

So Hurst offers insurance at a key position for Newton and the offense that new coordinator Norv Turner hopes to take to another level. He’s the best all-around tight end in the draft, and his 4.6-second speed in the 40-yard dash makes him like another slot receiver.

“You’re seeing in the league now where tight ends in the league aren’t tight ends,’’ ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “They’re wide receivers. Hurst from South Carolina, he’s a tight end.

“He’s a throwback. He’ll be like Heath Miller. He’ll be an in-line blocker. He catches the ball. He’s got a great attitude and approach.’’

Olsen likes Hurst a lot. He met him at the combine when he was a guest analyst for the NFL Network and again in Charlotte when Hurst made an official visit with the Panthers.

“He’s got a great head on his shoulders,’’ Olsen said.

Hurst actually modeled his game after Olsen’s.

“What he does on the field speaks for itself,’’ Hurst said. “More importantly, Greg’s an extremely well-rounded person. What he does off the field is huge. Even off-the-field stuff, I try to emulate him. He’s not the huge in-your-face guy that’s going to wind up on SportsCenter dancing in videos and things like that. He goes about his business quietly. I respect a guy like that.

“To be able to learn from him, a potential Hall of Fame tight end, in my opinion that would be huge for my career.’’

Drafting Hurst could be huge for Newton and the Panthers, who run a lot of two-tight-end sets.

“The reality of getting old in the NFL is at some point they’re going to replace you,’’ said Olsen, who said he hopes to play another three to five years. “I don’t pretend that’s not the case with me at all. Whether it’s tomorrow or five years, that’s the part you don’t know.

“If that day comes this year, fine.’’