Carolina Panthers

There’s no replacing Greg Olsen, but Ian Thomas’ development has Panthers optimistic

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) left the team’s season-opening victory over the Dallas Cowboys with a foot injury, leaving rookie Ian Thomas to fill in in his absence.
Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) left the team’s season-opening victory over the Dallas Cowboys with a foot injury, leaving rookie Ian Thomas to fill in in his absence. TNS

Expecting anyone to truly replace Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen would be an exercise in futility.

His three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 2014-2016, his near-telepathic connection with Cam Newton, not to mention his professionalism and standing in the Panthers locker room ... well, there’s just no one who can do everything Olsen does.

So why bother trying? That may seem like a concession of sorts, but it might be the key to unlocking Carolina’s offense in Olsen’s absence.

After Olsen exited Carolina’s season-opening victory over Dallas late in the first quarter, he returned after halftime with crutches and a walking boot on his right foot. That’s the same foot he had surgery on last season after he sustained a Jones fracture, which ultimately resulted in him missing eight games.

Coach Ron Rivera said he had no injury updates to offer on Monday, noting he hadn’t yet spoken to trainer Ryan Vermillion, but the overall attitude in the locker room Sunday night wasn’t one of optimism.

All of that suggests Carolina must plan for an extended Olsen absence for the second consecutive season. Last year, that meant more reps for backup Ed Dickson and No. 3 tight end Chris Manhertz.

But with Dickson’s offseason departure and Manhertz’s own Jones fracture earlier this summer, the bulk of Olsen’s reps — barring a trade or free agent acquisition — should go to Ian Thomas, a rookie fourth-rounder out of Indiana.

Newton said after Sunday’s game that Thomas, listed at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, “has been being prepared for this moment,” in a way, even though he obviously won’t be as productive as Olsen’ right away.

Instead, it will be about Thomas’ offensive teammates learning to gel with him as much as he still has to learn how to incorporate his skillset into Norv Turner’s offense.

“I think he’s pretty well-prepared,” Rivera said of Thomas on Monday. “There are some things obviously that he still has to learn, and he’s got a long ways to go in terms of that natural feel that Greg has, having that rapport that Greg has, so we’ll see.

“If the circumstances are (long-term), I can imagine Ian will play more.”

That wasn’t Carolina’s plan when it initially drafted Thomas, a somewhat raw but athletically gifted talent. Only now, any timetable for easing Thomas in has to fall by the wayside.

That ... might actually be OK. Thomas and Manhertz both acknowledged Monday the struggles that come with replacing Olsen, but that was far from resignation. It was more motivation, an external desire to assist their teammates as well as an internal one to continue developing.

Take Manhertz, for example, and how he went through a similar process last season. He credited his experience filling in for Olsen in 2017 as one of the biggest reasons for his expedited growth.

For Thomas, it’s about viewing this situation the same way.

One of the knocks on Thomas coming out of Indiana was his inexperience. He played just two seasons of major college football. That correlated to his blocking, criticisms of which were, “just some things I heard from some NFL teams.”

And now? Through months of OTA’s, training camp, and preseason action, Thomas consistently stood out wherever he lined up. So when asked what aspect of his game he felt he had developed the best with, his answer was clear.

“Probably blocking,” Thomas said. “I know everyone was always saying I was a bad blocker, I guess, but I felt like I got much better over the past couple of months.”

It’s only a matter of increased reps that allowed Thomas to grow that part of his game. Now with another opportunity for added snaps, there’s a clear window for Thomas to further refine his already-burgeoning skills.

“Well he’s been good with his blocking, good with his route-running, and he’s been good with his receiving... but he’s got to get better as a blocker, route-runner, and receiver,” Rivera said. “He can run a great route, but if they’ve got him covered, he’s got to learn how to break the route off and present a good target for the quarterback. As far as blocking is concerned, he gets it, he understands, but he’s still got to learn how to feel a guy’s body — if a guy’s got weight on one side, he’s got to understand, ‘Hey, that guy could be trying to counter on me coming back.’

“Those are just the things you learn through experience.”

That, no matter the extent of Olsen’s injury, will be crucial for this Panthers offense both in the now and the future. Expecting Thomas and Manhertz, individually or as a unit, to replace Olsen is an unreasonable ask for such young players.

But giving them an opportunity to fill the void as a means of development? Especially when that development to this point has already been so encouraging?

Well, that mindset may be the trick to the continued development of this Panthers offense, too.

“I feel like I’m getting ready, and I’m making strides,” Thomas said. “I’ll be ready game day if they call my number.”