When Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen left Sunday’s loss to Tampa with a foot injury, it must have felt something like deja vu for rookie Ian Thomas.
Olsen re-injured his surgically repaired right foot — which he first broke in 2017 — in the first half of Carolina’s Week 1 win over Dallas, forcing Thomas into action much sooner than expected. Olsen opted not to have surgery and instead let the foot heal on its own, but still missed three games.
During that time, Thomas — who at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds was the first pick of the fourth round in April’s NFL draft — played the majority of the team’s snaps at tight end. In the three games Olsen missed — against Atlanta, Cincinnati, and the New York Giants —Thomas played 94, 77.6, and 69 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, respectively.
Of course, those snaps didn’t exactly correlate to production. Thomas registered eight catches for 68 yards during that three-game span.
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Then, when Olsen returned, Thomas’ snap counts dropped off entirely. From the time Olsen returned until his re-injury last week — Thomas did finish the Tampa game with five catches for 46 yards, both career highs — Thomas never played more than 15.8 percent of the team’s snaps in any given week.
Now with Olsen out for the year on injured reserve — he told reporters after Sunday’s game that he reputed the plantar fascia in his foot — Thomas gets a second chance at being the team’s No. 1 tight end.
“I guess after having those couple games in the beginning of the year, I got to re-evaluate myself and fix what I made mistakes on,” Thomas said Wednesday. “Hopefully this time is better.”
When Thomas first stepped into Olsen’s role earlier this season, quarterback Cam Newton said of the rookie, “He doesn’t even know how good he is capable of being.”
Well, what about now?
“He still doesn’t know,” Newton grinned. “He’s good. He’s real good.
“He’s more comfortable with the plays that’s given, and it was good for him to kind of play sparingly and just to learn behind Greg more, if that’s something to even mention. Just to see where he’s come from and how fast he’s playing really is an attribute to his mentality and where he knows he has to be.”
Coming out of Indiana, Thomas as a prospect was hailed for his athleticism, even though he was considered raw. That meant the Panthers, who envisioned the rookie as something of an heir to Olsen, knew they’d have to coach him up on his blocking and the finer points of being a receiver.
Thomas said there isn’t necessarily any one aspect of his game where he feels he has made the most progress, but rather that he’s worked toward becoming a better all-around tight end.
“(I worked) really overall as a complete player. I can’t really point out one small thing,” Thomas said. “Everything from blocking, pass-catching, route-running, footwork, the smaller things.”
But even in limited action after Olsen left in the second quarter of the Tampa game, coach Ron Rivera said he could witness the strides Thomas has made.
In fact, Rivera said that game was arguably the most impressive point for Thomas since Olsen’s return.
“It was probably the way he played on Sunday,” Rivera explained. “You know, here’s a guy that hasn’t gotten a lot of game reps since Greg’s been back, and he came in and he played pretty well. Made a couple mental (mistakes), but for the most part, he came in and handled it very nicely. I thought he was ready to play, I thought he played fast, I thought when he got his opportunities he stepped up.”
A crucial time
Unfortunately for Thomas, his re-insertion into the lineup doesn’t come at the best time for the team.
The Panthers are in the midst of a four-game losing skid, dropping from 6-2 to outside the playoff picture. There isn’t exactly time for the team to ease Thomas along, although blocking tight end Chris Manhertz should certainly see his snaps increase, too.
Rather, Thomas will be expected to contribute from the get-go in a Panthers season that could be slipping away.
Not that Manhertz, who sits next to the rookie in the locker room, expects anything less from Thomas.
“It’s just a growth process for him obviously, throughout the season and the last couple weeks,” Manhertz said. “It’s never a question of ability. It’s just a matter of experience and getting the stripes under your belt.
“Now’s a prime opportunity for him to show what he’s able to do.”