Why Ian Thomas Could Be 2020's Fantasy Football Breakout Tight End
The top three tight ends in fantasy football in 2020 seem to be set in stone. Most, if not all people are expecting Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Mark Andrews to be the leading lights at the position this season (although there may be a few areas of concern regarding Andrews). If you don't fancy spending an early draft pick on these three, and you are content to wait for the later rounds for a tight end, you could do a lot worse than Ian Thomas of the Carolina Panthers.
Room for Improvement
It may seem odd to be touting a "lesser" player on a team that somewhat struggled to move the ball in 2019. The Panthers averaged -0.05 Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play last season, the second-lowest mark in the NFL. But the Panthers' offense should look a lot different in 2020, and these changes should benefit all players and especially, Thomas.
Thomas has yet to emerge as a truly dominant part of the Panthers' offense through his first two seasons in the NFL. While that is true, he has been forced to wait behind Greg Olsen for much of the time, which has limited his opportunities. Thomas commanded just 31 targets last season, which he converted into 16 receptions for 136 yards and a single touchdown. He was practically unusable in fantasy terms, producing a single TE1 (top 12) week. He didn't make up for a lack of production with high-end efficiency either.
Thomas averaged a woeful -0.12 Target NEP per target in 2019, which was 41st among the 41 tight ends to see at least 30 targets. This was after averaging 0.12 as a rookie in 2018. But Thomas was not helped in the slightest by the play of his quarterback. Kyle Allen averaged a mere 0.01 Passing NEP per drop back in 2019, a mark that saw him finish 20th among quarterbacks with at least 500 dropbacks. Out of 20.
Despite only seeing limited looks, Thomas was affected by the poor play of his quarterback more than most. According to PlayerProfiler, only 22 of Thomas's 31 targets were deemed catchable, or 71% of them. Only Michael Gesicki saw a lower rate of catchable targets among the tight ends with 30 or more targets (70.8%). Like most of the Panthers pass-catchers, Thomas will probably be glad that Allen is now a member of the Washington Football Team.
Change For The Better?
As mentioned previously, this offseason has been an eventful one for the Panthers. Former Baylor head coach Matt Rhule is now in charge, the architect of the overpowering 2019 Louisiana State offense Joe Brady is now running the offense, and former New Orleans Saints' quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will be under center. Plus, Greg Olsen is now a member of the Seattle Seahawks.
Bridgwater showed last season, in relief of Drew Brees, that he can facilitate an NFL offense. Bridgewater averaged 0.20 Passing NEP per drop back the 10th best mark among the 34 quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks. Bridgewater brings a mindset and a skill set that should make him and Thomas an ideal partnership.
Bridgewater could not be classed as an aggressive downfield passer, as evidenced by his averaging just 3.3 air yards per pass attempt last season. In fact, Bridgewater made it his business to get the ball into the hands of his receiving playmakers. 645 of his 1,384 passing yards came via completed air yards last season or 47%. Of the 38 quarterbacks to amass at least 1,000 passing yards in 2019, only Devlin Hodges saw air yards contribute to his final tally at a lesser rate than Bridgewater (45%).
Thomas has been an effective receiver when it comes to yards after the catch, with 218 of his 469 career receiving yards coming in YAC (46.4%). Thomas has enjoyed most of his success in games that Olsen has not played over the last two years. His splits with and without Olsen make this abundantly clear.
|With Olsen||Without Olsen|
In those nine games, as per the Sharp Football Preview, Thomas has caught 33 of his 55 targets, delivering 348 yards and three touchdowns.
Competition But Also Opportunity
But Thomas is not the sole pass-catching option on the Panthers. Bridgwater will have D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson, and Curtis Samuel at wide receiver, not to mention probably the best receiving running back in the game in Christian McCaffrey, all competing with Thomas. Bridgewater will look to get them all involved, but one area that Thomas should be a primary target will be in the red zone.
Thomas is 6'4" tall, with an 85th percentile Catch Radius according to PlayerProfiler. His imposing stature, and ability to catch anything thrown in the local zip code, is a benefit in an area where the field can contract quickly, gives him weekly touchdown upside. We should also factor in the woeful nature of the Panthers' defense, which is ranked 4th worst in the NFL according to our Team Power Rankings. The Panthers should be in plenty of shootouts, which is a boost to all pass catchers.
Thomas is projected to finish as the TE19 according to our projections, which fits into his current Bestball10s ADP of TE20 quite nicely. But, I believe that given the circumstances surrounding him and the Carolina Panthers this season, the sky really is the limit for Thomas.
If you want a recent parallel, Darren Waller was the TE23 in MFL ADP in 2019, and he finished the season as the TE5. I'll be grabbing as much Thomas as I can get my hands on this year unless you follow my advice and try to stop me from doing so.