BOURBONNAIS - The burden of high expectations is on tight end Greg Olsen this year, but that doesn't appear to be nearly enough to stall a career that seems to be blasting off for stardom.
"He's to that point in his career where he's ready to step up and have a huge year," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "He's gotten better every year, and (when) you get a better supporting cast around him, then obviously he's going to do better. He's playing with a lot of confidence and playing very fast right now."
Olsen has had star potential since the Bears selected him in the first round (31st overall) in 2007. But great expectations have haunted most of Bears' first-round picks in the past decade. First-rounders Curtis Enis (1998), Cade McNown (1999), David Terrell (2001), Marc Colombo (2002), Michael Haynes and Rex Grossman (2003) and Cedric Benson (2005) have all fallen somewhere in between major disappointments and outright failures.
Olsen has already surpassed all of those predecessors with two solid seasons. As a rookie he caught 39 passes for 391 yards, and last season he had 54 receptions for 574 yards and a team-best 5 TD catches.
The combination of early production, steady improvement and an enviable array of physical talents, plus the addition of Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler, have optimists predicting a monster season for the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Olsen. He's always had the speed and soft hands of a wide receiver, and now everything is coming together for him.
"When you're watching him, you see a lot of talent," Cutler said. "There are very few things he can't do on a football field as far as running routes and blocking. You don't very often find a guy with that kind of motor and, as big as he is, just the way he adjusts to balls. A lot of guys that big are kind of stiff and they can't do the things he can. He's a huge target, and we just have to use him the right way."
If the first week of training camp is any indication, Cutler will be utilizing Olsen more frequently than any Bears tight end has been used since some guy named "Ditka," back in the 1960s. Cutler has gone to Olsen repeatedly in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, connecting on quick slants, deep sideline routes and everything in between. Through the first week of practice, Olsen had dropped just 1 pass.
"We're a week into training camp, and I feel pretty good, and a lot of it has to do with being more confident because it's my third year," Olsen said. "As guys get more comfortable, they're able to go out and just do what they have to do instead of thinking about it."
Turner considers it a natural progression for Olsen to have his best season yet.
"He was ready to take the next step even without Jay," Turner said. "But they've already developed a good chemistry. Jay has a lot of confidence in Greg, and I think he's primed to have a really good year.
"The skill level obviously was always there, but he is playing faster, and he's doing a lot of the little things. I've mentioned it many times when we're in there watching film. Whether it's blocking with his pad level down, his footwork on blocks or the way he runs routes against press coverage. A lot of the things he's doing, he's doing so much better than he did last year and the year before."
Much was made over Olsen's promotion to No. 1 tight end ahead of 11-year veteran Desmond Clark, but that writing was on the wall well before training camp began. The changing of the guard was inevitable, even though Clark has always been a better blocker than Olsen, and has caught more than 40 passes in each of the past three seasons. Olsen has the speed to stretch a defense, and he's worked hard to improve his deficiencies as a blocker, as Clark graciously points out.
"One thing you have to appreciate about Greg is that he's a guy who came into the NFL with probably only one glaring weakness," Clark said. "For the last three years, that's primarily what he's been working on getting better at, trying to improve his strength, trying to work on his footwork so he could be that complete tight end. When you see a guy that has as much talent as he does working on the weaknesses, you just know there's going to come a day, and it's probably going to come very soon, where he's the complete package."
That day may have already arrived.