The Panthers are used to using fill-ins in 2018 – their lineup is filled with them.
Chris Clark is starting at left tackle for Matt Kalil, who is still sidelined after a knee scope in August. Taylor Moton is starting at right tackle for Daryl Williams, who has been on injured reserve since knee surgery after Week 1. Eric Reid is starting at safety for Da’Norris Searcy – Tyler Larsen filled in for Trai Turner during Sunday’s second half and DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel have seen elevated roles while Torrey Smith and Devin Funchess are on the mend.
The Next Man Up has been up so many times for the Panthers they should give him a locker – and now he’ll take the form of fourth-rounder Ian Thomas.
For a month earlier this season, rookie tight end Ian Thomas filled in for Greg Olsen when he suffered a rebreak of his fifth metatarsal; now, with Olsen going to IR for the second time in two seasons, he’ll need to step back into the starting tight end role again.
And this time, he’s even better prepared.
“I guess after having those couple of games in the beginning of the year, I got to reevaluate myself and fix what I made mistakes on,” said Thomas. “Hopefully, this time it’s better.”
“I feel very prepared, thanks to my teammates and my coaches and the work that I put in myself to study and learn the small things.”
Cam Newton thinks it will be – if the first pick of the fourth round, whom Marty Hurney and Ron Rivera stood pat to take even after multiple trade offers for the pick, realizes just how good he can be.
“He still doesn’t know – he’s good,” said Newton. “He’s real good, but he’s still young and still learning certain things. I think he’s more comfortable with the plays that [ are] given and there’s still time for him to play sparingly and learn behind Greg more – just to see where he’s come from and how fast he’s playing, really is a detriment or an attribute to his mentality and he knows where he has to be.”
Thomas may have only seen the field for only 24 snaps while Olsen was healthy from Week 5 through Week 11, but when his number was called on Sunday against the Bucs early in the second quarter as Olsen was being carted to the locker room, he responded with five catches for 46 yards – almost 50% of his output in the previous 11 games.
“Here’s a guy that hasn’t gotten a lot of game reps since Greg’s been back and he came in and played pretty well – he made a couple of 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,” said Ron Rivera. “I thought when he got his opportunities, he stepped up.”
While Thomas has taken the time during the past two months to work on his blocking, route running and timing with quarterback Cam Newton, it will be Olsen’s presence in the red zone that may be missed the most – all four of Olsen’s receptions inside the 20 went for touchdowns; Thomas had two receptions in the first two weeks in the red zone – both were stopped before he reached the end zone.
“I had a chance to sit back and watch Greg again and reevaluate myself and my game,” Thomas said this week as a throng of reporters gathered around the young and reserved tight end from Baltimore. “Now I get go out there and try again.”