CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Panthers are beginning to feel as if they have hit on something big with fourth-round draft pick Ian Thomas.
The rookie tight end, who grew up in Baltimore City and played for Digital Harbor High School, has carried over an outstanding performance in training camp to the preseason, where he showed an impressive burst of speed on a 27-yard catch-and-run touchdown reception from Cam Newton, and delivered a powerful seal block that helped spring Christian McCaffrey for a 71-yard touchdown in Friday night's preseason win over the Miami Dolphins.
And, he's still just learning.
“He doesn't even know how good he's capable of being,” Newton said of the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Thomas.
The Panthers didn't know exactly what they were getting with Thomas when they drafted him 101st overall because he hadn't seen all that much action as a receiver at Indiana. He spent two seasons with the Hoosiers and caught 28 passes, 25 of those as a senior. He spent his first two seasons at Nassau Community College.
But Carolina's scouts became convinced Thomas has what it takes to be a playmaker, and general manager Marty Hurney was sold on him as he studied more film.
“He's kind of a little bit of an unknown because he only really played one year of major college football,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We are fortunate that our college scouts pointed him out as somebody they thought could help us.”
Newton said Thomas’ size and versatility as a receiver and a blocker will make him a “key asset” this season on offense.
Thomas is making a strong case for being Carolina’s No. 2 tight end behind three-time Pro Bowl selection Greg Olsen. The Panthers lost Ed Dickson to free agency and Chris Manhertz hasn't practiced since the start of training camp due to a leg injury.
Rivera said Thomas' growth has been noticeably accelerated because of the increased repetitions he's received with Manhertz out.
“I think as a young man, he could come in and be a very good second or third behind Greg,” Rivera said. “When Chris gets back, we'll have a good combination of tight ends.”
Playing alongside Olsen, an 11-year veteran, doesn't hurt either.
“I think just walking in [to the NFL] he could not have been in a better situation,” Newton said. “I kind of just glance over in practice from time to time and see Greg taking him up under his wing, showing him how to practice, how to finish, how to run certain routes. He couldn't have been in a better situation, learning from him every day.”
All of that is good news for Thomas, who endured plenty of heartache as a child.
When he turned 8, he lost his mother Martha to kidney failure. The next year his father Earl died of a heart attack, leaving the children's future up in the air. That's when his then-19-year-old brother Clif Farmer stepped up to gain custody of him. Farmer raised his younger brother from that point forward.
“I want to make them happy and proud,” Thomas said, adding his goal is simply to get better and keep proving himself.
Teammates are noticing.
Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said Thomas could be on his way to big things in Carolina.
“He does everything the right way,” Kuechly said. “He blocks, he catches well and he runs well. I think he has picked things up really well.”