Owning the first pick of the fourth round offered the Panthers a unique opportunity. It meant they had about 12 hours to contemplate who they wanted when the draft resumed for its third and final day.
“We all slept on it and got our heads together (Saturday) morning,” said Jeff Morrow, director of college scouting. “Ian kept coming up. It was pretty easy.”
Indiana tight end Ian Thomas was the “easy” selection for Carolina. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder is an ideal developmental prospect to pair with All-Pro veteran Greg Olsen.
But getting to this point was far from easy for Thomas, a Baltimore native who lost his parents and was raised by older siblings beginning at nine years old.
“Literally survival mode,” Morrow said.
Thomas persevered. In high school, he lettered in basketball, track and football. He pursued the latter, which meant starting out at Nassau Community College, where he shared living space with 12 other players. The crammed quarters meant some had to sleep on couches. Not exactly a clear pathway to the pros.
But Thomas turned enough heads to emerge as the No. 2 junior college tight end. That’s when he earned a chance to play at Indiana University in 2016.
That’s the same year Tom Allen joined the Hoosiers' staff as defensive coordinator – he became head coach in 2017 – and right away he knew the big guy wearing No. 80 could be a force.
“Just a great looking kid physically. We got out on the field and right away I was impressed,” Allen said in a phone interview. “He could move, now. For his size, he’s really smooth. You could just tell he was a gifted athlete and there was a lot there developmentally. That was exciting for us.
“You knew he had a chance.”
There was still a lot to learn, and after arriving on campus just before the start of fall camp, not much time. As a result, Thomas posted just three receptions for 28 yards as a junior in 2016.
“He really wasn’t on anybody’s list after 2016,” Morrow said. “Going into the fall, he was a surprise to a certain degree. He got comfortable in their system and the natural talent came out.”
Said Allen: “Our offensive coordinator (Mike DeBord) knew Ian was special. We really made it a point to get him involved. I know the stress a player like him can put on a defense – the matchup issues he creates.”
Thomas started to figure things out as a senior. He recorded 25 catches for 376 yards and five touchdowns – not eye-popping numbers, but scouts saw several glimpses of his massive potential.
“By no means is he a finished product. He’s raw,” Morrow said. “But you could see the talent. He has the height, weight and speed you look for.”
When the Panthers selected Thomas with the first pick of the fourth round, Allen was thrilled. And sure, every college coach is excited when their players are drafted, but Allen particularly likes the situation Thomas is walking into as a rookie behind Olsen.
“It’s all about fit,” Allen said. “That system matches his skill set. I just feel like that is a great place for him to grow.”
Carolina tight ends coach Pete Hoener, a veteran of 19 NFL coaching seasons, will guide Thomas every step of the way. And anyone who knows the hard-to-please Hoener knows that process of becoming a complete tight end won’t be easy.
“The more demanding the situation, the more it pulls out of Ian,” Allen said. “He can handle being coached really hard. He’s not fazed by a lot. He’s very steady; doesn’t get too high or too low. He’s not one of those that will resist (being pushed) whatsoever. You can hold him to high standards and he will not disappoint.”
And if it clicks for Thomas, look out.
“He’s got such soft hands, he runs good routes, he’s physical at the point of attack,” Allen said. “I don’t want to limit him whatsoever. He can do all the things the Panthers want him to do.”