It's Now or Never for Ian Thomas

Can the Panthers tight end finally put it all together?
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Greatness doesn't happen overnight, it takes time. Everyone grows up dreaming of not only making the NFL but becoming one of the very best to ever play the game. Unfortunately, the reality is not everyone gets to live out that dream and if they do, a very small percent of them become legendary players.

For Carolina Panthers' tight end Ian Thomas, it's not about chasing greatness. It's not about trying to become the next Greg Olsen. It's just about improving day by day and developing into a reliable receiving tight end. Through the first three years of his career, Thomas has been a non-factor in the Carolina offense after being drafted in the 4th round of the 2018 NFL Draft. As a matter of fact, his production has not improved after posting 36 receptions for 333 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie. 

When you look at the number of receptions, yards, and touchdowns Thomas has recorded thus far in his career, nothing really jumps out at you that would lead you to believe he could become a No. 1 tight end. However, there is one hidden statistic that leaves some hope and that's his 65.5% career catch percentage. For reference, Olsen had a career catch percentage of 61.8%. Living in the mid-high 60s is a pretty respectable number and is a mark that most tight ends aim for at a minimum. Despite the high catch rate, Thomas has not seen a high number of targets as he is averaging 36.6 targets per season. Most No. 1 tight ends around the league are getting about 70-80 looks on average and that's more on the conservative side. 

Those who have read my content over the past year know that I am not necessarily the most optimistic about Thomas turning into a quality tight end but I'm attempting to see the glass half full and looking for reasons that Panthers fans should keep faith in Thomas panning out. 

When you look at the first two years of his career, he was in the shadow of Greg Olsen. Once Olsen moved on to the Seattle Seahawks, that finally opened up a path for Thomas to become the team's go-to target at tight end in 2020. It just so happened to be that he had to get familiar with an entirely new offense under Matt Rhule and Joe Brady and to make matters even worse, had to do a lot of the learning virtually due to the pandemic forcing NFL teams to remain at home until the start of training camp. According to Thomas, not having a regular offseason/preseason made it more challenging to learn the playbook, the calls, and everything else that comes with learning a new system. He's already noticing a difference this offseason by being able to partake in minicamp and OTAs.

"I think doing it in-person rather than virtual was a big step for me because it was hard staying in tune and locked in through a computer or iPad and learning the little things of the offense were really off to me last year and this year is a lot easier because I can actually hear it face to face and actually talk through it on the field so that was a big difference."

So is it just a matter of settling into the new system for Thomas to finally flourish? Matt Rhule believes so.

"Ian has had a tremendous offseason. He looks explosive, he looks athletic. If you're talking about a guy that's had a good offseason, I would say it would be Ian. He's more comfortable with what he's doing. He catches 40 or 50 balls every day from us every day with Coach Angelico and I just think for Ian coming in from one system into another system he was just kind of taking it as it came. Now, he has a chance to really delve into the details of what we do. I think this is the most important part for him."

Last year, the Panthers didn't have a whole lot of options in the tight end room which allowed Thomas to be the No. 1 receiving threat among that group. This season, his job security isn't going to be as strong even with the tremendous offseason that Rhule talked about. Anytime you sign a veteran like Dan Arnold and then draft a young guy (Tommy Tremble) in one offseason, it shows a lack of trust in what you currently have in the tight end room. If Thomas fails to emerge as a reliable, explosive playmaker in the passing game, Dan Arnold and Tommy Tremble will continue to see more and more reps. Arnold will likely be the No. 1 tight end out of training camp and Tremble is seen as more of a blocker, so at the very worst, Thomas could settle in as the No. 2.

"Dan Arnold obviously brings a receiving threat to us, Tommy [Tremble], we're excited to see what he can do," Rhule said. "So for me, it's hard to say exactly what we'll see until we get into pads but I think we have a group that can get open, that can catch the football, that can also block. Obviously, we'd like them to be a little more of a presence in the passing game than it was last year especially after losing Curtis [Samuel]. So hopefully someone can help over the middle of the field, that would be great."

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