CHARLOTTE — In a perfect world, the Panthers would have a bunch of tight ends, who were all good at every aspect of the game.
Things are rarely perfect.
So as they try to piece together a position group from a collection of new and sometimes unusual parts, they're giving another look at a guy who had a year to get to know them.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule has brought up Thomas several times lately as a player who has progressed this offseason, giving him another chance to stake his claim to the job.
"Ian has had a tremendous offseason," Rhule said. "He looks explosive, he looks athletic; if you're talking about a guy that's had a great offseason, I'd say Ian Thomas."
Of course, Thomas has always had loads of potential; it has just taken him some time to show signs of delivering on it.
The former fourth-round pick struggled in his first year in a new system last year, with just 20 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown, in a setting where he had opportunities (playing 65 percent of the team's offensive snaps). Rhule also noted that after losing wide receiver Curtis Samuel in free agency, there was a real need for someone who could get open across the middle of the field this year, making the need for production from the entire tight end position more immediate.
Thomas admitted that trying to learn it all last year on a computer screen was difficult for him, and that actually having OTAs and a real-life offseason program have made a huge difference for him.
"I think doing in-person instead of virtual was a big step for me," Thomas said. "Doing it virtually, I wasn't really feeling it at the time. Staying in tune being locked in through a computer or iPad, getting reps, and learning the little things of the offense was off to me.
"This year is a lot easier because I can actually hear it from someone face-to-face and talk through it on the field. That was a big difference."
Tight ends coach Brian Angelichio can tell that difference, and he said it began with Thomas walking in ready to work.
"You can tell he put in the work, he's in great shape," Angelichio said. "His body looks good; he's running well.
"I think with every player, in year two in a system, you're going to have a better feel for what's expected of you, and know more of the nuances of the offense. It's a natural progression, and that's what we've seen from Ian."
Rhule acknowledged that talking up Thomas might "sound like coach-speak," but he insisted that the difference in Thomas this offseason was visible.
"But we're getting a chance, he catches 40 or 50 balls a day from us, he has a chance to have Ang (Angelichio) out there, and do this. Ian, coming from one system to another system last year, he was kind of eating it as it came. Now he has a chance to delve into the details of what we do. I think this is the most important thing for him, is just having a feel for what we're asking him."
He also has the frame for it.
At 6-foot-4, 260 pounds, Thomas has the closest thing to the classic tight end frame among the group, so it's clear why they'd like it to work out for him. Arnold's a leaner player with more of a resume as a receiver, and Tremble's a shorter player known for his blocking, so the opportunity to stand out is there if Thomas can grab it.
The tight end position as a whole is also a bit of a mixed bag of skill sets, with the group including former basketball players, and until earlier this week, a former quarterback. So finding someone who can do it all is difficult.
Thomas also recognizes that he's entering into the final year of his rookie contract, and that the additions of Arnold and Tremble mean he no longer has unlimited chances to prove himself.
"I took it upon myself to make myself better as a player," Thomas said. "That's every year in football. I've just got to go and play ball.
"Those guys are great guys and I'm glad they brought them in, but I'm here to play football and that's what Im going to do every day."
And while nothing is promised, Thomas is at least in a better position to prove himself this year.
View photos from Thursday's OTA practice at the Atrium Health practice fields.