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Monday Morning Optimist: Ian Thomas is reason enough to keep watching

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The Panthers should start Will Grier, but I’ll keep an eye on Thomas no matter what.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Nobody should be surprised that the Carolina Panthers lost again to the Atlanta Falcons. For all that the Falcons are probably well on their way to firing their own head coach, the Panthers are just hurt enough and just enough in shambles that they won’t be beating many—if any—teams any time soon. They flashed life on both sides of the ball but ultimately lacked the sustained energy and focus to play a complete game of football.

That’s OK, though. If the team were capable of winning as currently structured then they would have been doing so. That team wouldn’t have fired its head coach with four games left to play. Nobody who is honest with themselves is watching the Panthers right now with the expectation that they can win. We’re all watching for those flashes of life. Those are the spots of talent and youth that are going to be here next year.

D.J. Moore just recorded the Panthers first 1,000 yard season by a wide receiver since Kelvin Benjamin. Steve Smith was the last one before him. His breakout is official and in the past now, he and running back Christian McCaffrey have few surprises left. Ian Thomas, on the other hand, apparently has a few in store for Panthers fans.

With only five receptions on ten (!) targets, this game was still a career highlight for the second year tight end. He is in line to replace Greg Olsen when ever that venerable veteran rides off to the great broadcasting booth in the sky. Thomas, while not the most technically consistent blocker yet, showed great precision with his routes and an ability to make contested catches that are often the hallmarks of productive receiving tight ends.

He went one step further by fighting after every catch for that one step further on the field. A tight end who can get extra yards after the catch is not only valuable but has also been absent from the Panthers since a five-year younger Olsen graced the field.

Optimism now isn’t about a players progression in the season. It has nothing to do with how Kyle Allen has a better grip on the ball now when he gets sacked or on Donte Jackson at least attempting to use his arms to tackle somebody. Panthers fans need to look at the raw talents of guys they hardly see. Thomas, Curtis Samuel basically still counts, and (a healthy) Christian Miller are the kind of guys we should want to see. Jackson and Allen aren’t fully known quantities, but we at least know what they can do well. The younger guys need an opportunity to flash their raw talents.

On the one hand, that gives them a chance to audition for the Panthers new coach. On the other, it gives fans concrete moments to be excited about. Those moments become the foundation of prognostications and mock drafts and all kinds of engagement that keeps them coming back next season.

That means it is also time to play Will Grier. At this point, there is literally nothing left to lose. Allen has backed the team out of the red zone in goal to go situations often enough. If I have to watch another third and goal from the woof then at least let me watch the play be run by a new name.

The only reason not to play him is if drafting him was a mistake and it is obvious from practice that he isn’t ready to play in the NFL. Even then, he can only show so much running the scout team week in and week out. The team shouldn’t wait for Allen to get a concussion to give him a shot.

They won’t, of course. Allen is the guy as long as he can walk on the field. And that’s OK for the fan experience. Thomas is proving to be the one of the guys that the team has been missing: a reliable receiver who can move the chains. A few third down targets and a few highlight plays are what we have left, anyway. The hope he gives is that the offense will, one day, be able to stay on the field long enough to get back to Moore and McCaffrey breaking a game wide open. That’s enough for me.