Panthers turn to rookie TE Ian Thomas to replace injured Greg Olsen

Rivera: "I think he’s pretty well-prepared."

The Carolina Panthers must plan for the extended absence of tight end Greg Olsen for the second consecutive season after the veteran injured on Sunday the same foot that required surgery last season.

After Olsen exited Carolinas 16-8 season-opening victory over Dallas late in the first quarter, he returned after halftime with crutches and a walking boot on his right foot, the same foot he sustained a fracture to last season. He ultimately missed eight games.

With Olsen out last season, backup Ed Dickson and No. 3 tight end Chris Manhertz filled in. Dickson departed in the offseason and Manhertz suffered his own foot fracture this summer. That leaves rookie fourth-round pick Ian Thomas of Indiana as the primary tight end.

Olsen would be hard to replace for a veteran, let alone a rookie like Thomas. Olsen had three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 2014-2016, exemplifying his strong connection with Cam Newton. Olsens presence is also an asset in the locker room.

Newton tried to put a positive spin on the situation mentioning after Sundays game that Thomas, 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, has been being prepared for this moment.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera did not offer an update on Olsens injury on Monday, mentioning he had not talked to trainer Ryan Vermillion. The locker room was subdued Sunday despite the win because of Olsens aggravation of last years serious injury.

I think hes pretty well-prepared, Rivera said of Thomas on Monday. There are some things obviously that he still has to learn, and hes got a long ways to go in terms of that natural feel that Greg has, having that rapport that Greg has, so well see.

If the circumstances are (long-term), I can imagine Ian will play more.

Thomas and Manhertz both talked to reporters Monday about the struggles that come with replacing Olsen, but that they are motivated by the challenge.

Through the months of OTAs, training camp, and preseason action, Thomas consistently performed well for the Panthers. He acknowledges that his blocking has primarily improved.

I know everyone was always saying I was a bad blocker (coming out of Indiana), I guess, but I felt like I got much better over the past couple of months, Thomas said. I feel like Im getting ready, and Im making strides. Ill be ready game day if they call my number.

Rivera believes Thomas will mature because of his increased responsibility with Olsen out.

Well hes been good with his blocking, good with his route-running, and hes been good with his receiving, but hes got to get better as a blocker, route-runner, and receiver, Rivera said. He can run a great route, but if theyve got him covered, hes got to learn how to break the route off and present a good target for the quarterback.

QB Cam Newton scored a rushing touchdown in the second quarter against Dallas, his 55th career rushing touchdown. Newton has more rushing touchdowns than any quarterback in NFL history, and is tied for the second-most rushing touchdowns of any player, regardless of position, in the NFL since 2011.

DT Defensive tackle Kawann Short notched two sacks, his ninth multi-sack game of his career. Short now has 31.5 career sacks, the most of any defensive tackle in franchise history.

DE Mario Addison recorded a strip sack in the final minutes of the game. Addison now has 37.5 career sacks, the third-most among active NFL players that went undrafted. Addisons 20.0 sacks since Week 9 of the 2016 season rank third in the NFL.

RB Christian McCaffrey lost a fumble inside the five-yard line on Carolinas first drive. It marked his first lost fumble since Week 1 of 2017 at San Francisco. McCaffrey finished with 16 touches (10 rushes 6 receptions) for 95 yards from scrimmage.

TE Greg Olsen caught the longest pass from Cam Newton in the game, a 19-yard gain before aggravating in the first quarter a right foot injury he suffered last season. He wore a boot on the foot, which required surgery last season and caused Olsen to miss the last eight games. Coach Ron Rivera could not offer an update Monday because he said he had yet to talk to the team trainer.