The tight end position is one of the most difficult in regard to transitioning from the college game to the NFL level. Not only do tight ends need to learn complex route schemes, but they are often asked to understand blocking in both the run and passing games. Considering all the variables, it’s extremely rare to see any rookie tight end break out.
Some tight ends — such as George Kittle, Mark Andrews, Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz — broke out in their second seasons, but others needed even more time before they became useful fantasy assets. Austin Hooper, Darren Waller and Tyler Higbee all broke out in their third or fourth seasons.
In fantasy football drafts, the elite tight ends come with high draft capital, and there are only so many of them. If you miss out at the beginning of your draft, it’s crucial that you snag one or two of these late-round targets who have shown the upside to suggest they can make the leap.
In this series of articles, I’m looking at the breakout potential at the tight end position with a focus on players entering their second, third and fourth seasons. I'll take a look at their current situations to see if they have a clear path to targets and then analyze what they've done in the NFL to this point to determine whether they've shown the upside to break out in 2020.
No Longer in Greg Olsen's Shadow
Carolina Panthers tight end Ian Thomas has flashed periodically throughout his two-year NFL career while playing in the shadow of veteran Greg Olsen, who has now moved on to the Seattle Seahawks. That pushes Thomas into the No. 1 tight end role for the Panthers in 2020. When he has operated as the primary tight end in the past due to Olsen's absence, Thomas has had his best performances.
Thomas finished his rookie season strong as the TE6 in Weeks 14-17 in 2018 with Olsen sidelined. And in Week 14 of the 2019 NFL season with Olsen out, Thomas posted his best stat line of the season — compiling five receptions for 57 receiving yards and a touchdown on nine targets.
That week was the highlight of Thomas’ sophomore season. In the rest of the campaign, his cumulative numbers were less impressive, as he played significantly fewer snaps due to Olsen missing just two games. With Olsen now out of the picture, Thomas should be on track to build on his strong rookie campaign and potentially fill a void in the slot for the Panthers in 2020.