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Rookie Ian Thomas took a big step forward in Cleveland

Ian Thomas makes a catch vs. Cleveland

CHARLOTTE – Lost in Carolina's fifth consecutive loss was the breakthrough performance from rookie tight end Ian Thomas.

Sunday's game against the Browns was the first since three-time Pro Bowler Greg Olsen was placed on IR after re-injuring the foot that caused him to miss three games earlier in the year.

Thomas was once again thrust into the No. 1 tight end role, and he looked like a different player than the wide-eyed fourth-round pick we saw in September.

"He's had a chance to learn and reflect," head coach Ron Rivera said, "and you can see the improvement."

Thomas was the most targeted player on the field in Cleveland, catching nine of 11 passes thrown his way for 77 yards. Those are all career highs.

And that came after posting five catches on five targets for 46 yards following Olsen's departure last week at Tampa Bay.

"I kind of had to step my game up and do what I had to do to fill that void," Thomas said.

Let's take a closer look at the tape against the Browns to see the ways in which Thomas has progressed.

1st QTR: 4-yard catch on third-and-4

This looks like a fairly simple pitch and catch, but it's a good example of Thomas navigating some traffic coming off the line and finding a soft spot in the defense. He also shows good awareness running his route to the sticks to move the chains.

1st QTR: 7-yard catch on third-and-1

Thomas does really well here to block down on the linebacker and sell the run before slipping into the flat for an easy completion on third down. This set up a touchdown two plays later.

2nd QTR: 12-yard catch on first-and-10

The Panthers call a play-action fake, and Thomas drags across the field underneath. His speed is on display here as he creates a good five yards of separation. Thomas then turns upfield and braces for contact from three Browns defenders, but you can see they aren't all that excited about tackling the 260-pounder at full speed. If Thomas keeps his feet, he could have created some additional yards after contact.

3rd QTR: 9-yard catch on fourth-and-1

Another good job here by Thomas to sell the fake and leak out for this critical fourth-down conversion. The dead-ball "unsportsmanlike" penalty he's called for after the play was so ridiculous it's not worth discussing.

3rd QTR: 16-yard catch on first-and-10

This was Thomas' longest reception of the day. He finds a soft spot over the middle and then shows the change-of-direction ability, leaving the linebacker in his wake. Then his power is on display as he barrels through the secondary and finishes with authority.