Not every player in the NFL Draft falls into a perfect situation. When the Carolina Panthers selected Ian Thomas with the 101st pick in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft, they selected a player who fits their offense and for whom Carolina is the perfect scenario.
Coming out of Indiana, Thomas had some flaws in his game. He struggled with concentration drops, but he was a solid in-line blocker and had the versatility to align anywhere for an offense. Whether he was aligned as an H-back or in the slot, you could see the upside in his game as a pass-catching tight end. Personally, I looked beyond the flaws. I saw the upside, his frame and ability to block, and instantly thought he had a role in the NFL. If you go back and look at my big board from last year, he was my top-ranked tight end for those reasons.
Injuries are unfortunate, and for the Carolina Panthers, it seems as if they’ve reached the end of the road with Greg Olsen. Foot injuries have plagued him over the last two seasons, and before we know it, Olsen will be in a broadcast booth talking about a game where he’s had plenty of success. As he reaches the end of the road, another player has taken the wheel for the Panthers’ starting tight end role.
That player is Ian Thomas.
All season, I’ve waited for what the kids call “my brand” to emerge. Despite losing to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday 26-20, my brand emerged. Ian Thomas had nine receptions for 77 yards against the Browns. Over the last two weeks, Thomas has tallied 14 receptions for 123 yards. Putting last week aside, I want to take a look at the career day for the rookie tight end and see how he’s emerged as Cam Newton’s favorite target in such short order.
Trips Bunch Spot Concept
It makes perfect sense for the Carolina Panthers to utilize Ian Thomas as a weapon underneath coverages for Cam Newton. When you have the speed of wide receivers D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel to stretch the field, Thomas will have plenty of open looks in the middle of the field. Keep in mind that Christian McCaffrey is going to run wheel routes, flats, angle routes and anything else you can think of, too.
On the play above, you can see a trips bunch formation and the spot concept is run out of it. McCaffrey (RB #22) runs to flats and up the sideline and we get a wheel route from Jarius Wright (WR #13). Curtis Samuel (WR #10) runs vertical and Devin Funchess (WR #17) is at the bottom of the screen running a quick hitch. Meanwhile, Ian Thomas (TE #80) sits underneath the coverage and is open after one of the defensive backs runs into his own teammates.
Regardless, Thomas is open and Newton finds him underneath. This isn’t the prettiest route, or even the best concept, considering where the coverage is and should end up being, but because of the defensive miscue, the pass is completed. These will happen more frequently as Thomas continues to improve.
“Oh oh, (no) trust issues”
Turn off the song Trust Issues by Drake. It’s clear that there aren’t any between Ian Thomas and Cam Newton. I don’t care what anyone says; if a quarterback is looking for a rookie tight end on third-down, there’s some serious trust involved.
It almost looks as if Cam Newton is staring down Ian Thomas the entire time. There’s a drag route coming across the line from the top of the screen and Christian McCaffrey is running the angle route out of the backfield. However, Newton is looking for the first down and sees Ian Thomas the entire way. Even though this is the Panthers’ second run with Thomas as the starting tight end, it’s clear that Newton is trusting him more and more after each and every reception.
In the Carolina Panthers’ offense, there will be plenty of opportunities for play-action passes. Earlier this season, the Panthers were running play-action passes on 28% of their dropbacks. When you think about it, it makes sense. Cam Newton is always a threat to run the football, and Christian McCaffrey is efficient whenever he has the ball in his hands. With that being said, the door for play-action passes remains open, and it will always put receivers and tight ends in good position to make a play for the Panthers’ offense.
The play above is a clear example of play-action working in the Panthers’ favor. Newton gets under center, fakes the hand-off to McCaffrey, and then slightly rolls to his right. Wide open on the drag route is Ian Thomas. Before he even runs his route, Thomas doesn’t even budge after contact from Anthony Zettel (DE #97). He continues with the drag route and is wide open for a first down.
This is a fantastic play from Cam Newton, no doubt. However, Ian Thomas does a great job check-releasing and getting to the flats for the first down. In the process, he finds the ball and does a good job securing the pass. These catches aren’t flashy, but tight ends have picked defenses apart with these types of plays. Keep in mind that it’s 4th-and-1 and Cam Newton has some serious trust in his rookie tight end to get the first down on this crucial play.
Yards After the Catch
Many teams have more “receiver-type” tight ends. Evan Engram and Eric Ebron fit that mold. Coming out of college, both were treated like wide receivers in the draft process and got labeled as matchup nightmares. At 6’3 and 259 pounds, Ian Thomas won’t get treated like a wide receiver, especially with his 40-yard dash being clocked at 4.74 seconds. However, he’s a mismatch against smaller defensive backs and most linebackers. Again, he won’t beat you with his athletic ability, but there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll bully most players that line up against him.
To see this many yards after the catch is a promising sign for the rookie. It won’t happen every play, and it might not happen every game, but to know that it’s happened is certainly a positive. On the play above, Thomas runs the “stick” concept. Even though the linebacker trips over his own feet, there’s no doubt that Thomas would have beaten him inside and picked up the additional yardage either way. Regardless, these plays will happen more frequently for the rookie as his career moves along.
Getting Physical and Blocking
From the first time I watched him in Mobile, I knew that Ian Thomas liked to get physical. His frame stood out against all the other tight ends, and he always had a good base, low pad level, and brought the tenacity. It was certainly one of the strengths in his game. Despite being mismatched on some defensive linemen (AKA Myles Garrett), he’ll still give an honest effort against anyone.
After Greg Olsen got hurt, Ian Thomas came in and finished the game at tight end against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On the play above, you can see Thomas aligned next to the left tackle, and across from him is Jason Pierre-Paul (DE #90). Thomas’s job is simple; check and release.
You can clearly see the check and then the release from Thomas. He hit JPP incredibly hard, and this was enough to slow him up as he starts his pass rush towards the quarterback. This buys Cam Newton some extra time in the pocket and gives him enough time to find an open receiver and go through his progressions.
As I’ve mentioned, Ian Thomas consistently blocks with a wide base and low pad level. From the four yard line, McCaffrey gets the hand-off and has nothing but space. Thomas did such a good job “blocking for five” that the pulling right guard didn’t have to stop any of the bleed-through from the usual missed block from someone at the second level.
What’s Next for Ian Thomas
During his eight years with the Carolina Panthers, Greg Olsen has 472 receptions for 5,866 yards and 37 touchdowns. Throughout that time, Olsen has been one of the most consistent tight ends in the league. He’s always had a role in the Panthers’ offense, and it’s been an important one. However, the injuries have piled up and the Panthers’ offense is handing over the reins to another tight end. Ian Thomas is proving he can be all of that and more.
Top-five graded #Panthers players on offense from Week 14 vs. the Browns (min. 15 total snaps)
RT Taylor Moton – 74.3
RB Christian McCaffrey – 71.7
LG Greg Van Roten – 70.7
TE Ian Thomas – 64.9
WR Jarius Wright – 61.6#KeepPounding
— PFF CAR Panthers (@PFF_Panthers) December 10, 2018
Whether he’s blocking, catching passes, or running defensive backs over after the catch, Ian Thomas is starting to turn the corner in his rookie season. He’s gaining the trust of his veteran quarterback, too, and that’s just as important. Thomas has big shoes to fill replacing the void of Greg Olsen, but through two weeks, he has been good. He should only get better, and his growth is pivotal to the outlook of the Panthers’ offense.