(This is part of a series -- Finding the Fits -- in which NFLDraftScout.com will review the more intriguing picks made during the 2018 NFL Draft. The goal is to identify one relatively unheralded player per team who appears to be a good schematic fit and, therefore, more likely to be a surprise contributor early in his pro career.)
Raw talent is, of course, the most important factor when it comes to making it at the NFL level.
Desire and opportunity aren't far behind, though.
In Carolina, a combination of all three could lead to Thomas -- the first pick of the fourth round -- quickly becoming a more productive player for the Panthers than he ever was in college.
That might surprise you, given that the Panthers boast one of the NFL's elite tight ends in Greg Olsen, a three-time Pro Bowler who recently signed a two-year extension to remain with the club.
Established depth behind the 12-year veteran might be at an all-time low in Carolina, however.
That's because last year's primary backup, Ed Dickson, signed with Seattle in the offseason and the man thought likely to take over his role -- three-year veteran Chris Manhertz -- may be starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list after suffering an injury during last month's minicamp.
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney announced Tuesday that Manhertz underwent surgery to repair a Jones fracture to his left foot, the same injury that kept Olsen sidelined for much of last season.
The injury to Manhertz thrusts Thomas into the spotlight, where he could stay, given the notoriously TE-friendly scheme new (to the Panthers) offensive coordinator Norv Turner is bringing with him to Carolina.
Turner spent last season away from the game after spending much of the previous four decades in the NFL building some of the more balanced offenses in the league, including most recently in Minnesota. There, he helped Kyle Rudolph enjoy some of the best production of his career, just like he did with Jordan Cameron in Cleveland, Jason Witten in Dallas and Antonio Gates in San Diego.
While tight ends as a whole do well in Turner's offense, Thomas is a different kind of player than most of the veteran coach's prior pupils.
Thomas certainly is different than Manhertz, who at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, operated mostly as run-blocker in 2017, catching just two passes for 17 yards. Thomas was not much more productive. He saw limited passes with the Hoosiers, catching just 28 of them for a total of 404 yards and five touchdowns in his two seasons.
Even as a senior, Thomas served as a clear-cut secondary option in Indiana's offense behind star receiver Simmie Cobbs, a first-team All-Big Ten pick who led the Hoosiers in catches (72), receiving yards (841) and touchdowns (eight).
Thomas is more physical at the point of attack than his somewhat undersized frame suggests, but his greatest assets are his soft hands and athleticism, which stood out at the Combine in comparison to the rest of a quality tight end crop.
Thomas ranked second among tight ends in most of the athletic tests conducted in Indianapolis, finishing behind only the freakish Mike Gesicki, a former Penn State hybrid receiver who was selected nearly 60 picks earlier by the Miami Dolphins.
In 4.65 seconds, Thomas showed at the Combine that he possesses more than enough speed to run away from the defenders and his receiver-like 36-inch vertical jump and 10-foot, 3-inch broad jump show off the explosiveness.
This is the same raw athleticism that caused Thomas to initially focus on basketball out of high school, signing with Nassau Community College before opting to return to the gridiron and ultimately signing with Indiana as a lightly recruited junior college prospect before hard work turned him into a legitimate NFL prospect and perhaps one of the surprise immediate impact rookies from this year's class.
Olsen is clearly the most reliable pass-catcher in Carolina, and Cam Newton has a variety of young pass-catchers to target with rising split end Devin Funchess and flashy former first-round picks D.J. Moore and Christian McCaffery likely to play much more prominent roles than Thomas in 2018.
But Thomas has the athleticism to handle a much larger role as a rookie than most would expect, given his draft position and college statistics. Drafted into an ideal landing spot, Thomas' best football may still be ahead of him.
Other thoughts on the Panthers' 2018 draft class:
D.J. Moore was been rightly compared to former Panthers star receiver Steve Smith throughout the draft process. Both offer a rare combination of a compact (critics would call it short) frame, explosive straight-line speed and a physically tenacious playing style that belies their average height.
I will be the first to admit that I was not as high on Moore as others throughout the build-up to the draft as much of his production at Maryland was tied to relatively simple quick screens that do not translate well to the NFL. They may in the playground style of offense that Cam Newton excels in, however, especially with so many other size and/or speed mismatches on the roster to leave Moore facing a lot of single coverage.
While I am a big fan of the fits for Thomas and Moore in Carolina's offense, I'm not as high on Marty Hurney's selection of speedy LSU cornerback Donte Jackson in the second round.
Jackson has remarkable speed and therefore his upside is undeniably intriguing. His 4.32-second time at the Combine was the fastest of any player tested this year and, make no mistake, he plays as fast as timed.
Unfortunately, Jackson also plays as big as his 178-pound frame suggests, too often getting rag-dolled by bigger receivers and offering little in terms of run support. It is a lot easier to imagine a scenario in which head coach Ron Rivera, a former NFL linebacker, falls in love with the greater physicality and instincts that third-round defensive back Rashaan Gaulden demonstrates than the feast-or-famine playing style Jackson showed at LSU.
Carolina's 2018 draft class:
1st Round, No. 24 overall: WR D.J. Moore, Maryland
2nd Round, No. 55 overall: CB Donte Jackson, LSU
3rd Round, No. 85 overall: S Rashaan Gaulden, Tennessee
4th Round, No. 101 overall: TE Ian Thomas, Indiana
4th Round, No. 136 overall: OLB Marquis Haynes, Mississippi
5th Round, No. 161 overall: ILB Jermaine Carter, Maryland
7th Round, No. 234 overall: ILB Andre Smith, North Carolina
7th Round, No. 242 overall: DT Kendrick Norton, Miami
Key Undrafted Free Agents Signed:
Kyle Allen, QB, Houston
Taylor Hearn, OG, Clemson
Tracy Sprinkle, DT, Ohio State