Over the years, fantasy football has become diversified in how you can play and in what format. Whether it be individual defensive players (IDP), Superflex (SF), or even just point-per-reception (PPR), fantasy football has evolved to include as much as possible. One of the newer types of scoring formats that are becoming popular now is tight end-premium leagues. In this article, I will go over how tight end premium scoring works and, more importantly, why you need to be drafting Ian Thomas on your team in 2020.
Tight end premium fantasy football leagues
In a typical PPR league, all receptions count as one point. However, because the tight end position doesn’t typically yield as many points as the wide receiver or running back position does, TE premium allows for the position to gain a little more value. So on top of the one point per reception, tight ends would typically get an additional half-point per reception (one and a half total). While it doesn’t make tight ends more valuable than running backs or wide receivers in fantasy football, it does help close the gap a little bit.
For example, the top-scoring tight end in PPR leagues last season (Travis Kelce) scored 254.3 fantasy points. That point total would have made him the ninth-highest scoring RB and WR in the same scoring format. To go even further, the second highest-scoring tight end (George Kittle) scored 222.5 fantasy points last season, which would’ve made him the 14th highest scoring RB and the 19th highest scoring WR. So clearly, there is a huge value disparity between the running back/wide receiver and tight end positions in fantasy football.
But in using TE premium scoring, Kelce (304.8 fantasy points) and Kittle (265.0) would have been second and sixth-highest scoring wide receivers, respectively, in 2019. As for how they stack up to the running back position, Kelce would’ve been the fifth-highest scoring back while Kittle would’ve finished seventh. So in all, TE premium scoring leagues allow for the position to gain more value and be sought after just as much as the other valuable positions in fantasy football.
Ian Thomas’ Relative Athletic Score (RAS)
Coming into his third season now, Thomas has a lot of hype surrounding him in regards to fantasy football. Drafted by the Carolina Panthers back in 2018 when they still had Greg Olsen on the roster, Thomas stood out for his athleticism. Thomas would score a 9.29 out 10 for a relative athletic score.
He had good speed and ability while having an elite explosion grade. In his first two seasons, his ability as an athlete has been viewed in bits and pieces mainly due to the presence of Olsen as the starter. Even in those short windows, Thomas has made quite the impression.
Despite being a backup, Thomas made a significant impact in his first two seasons
Thomas originally set the world on fire during the end of his rookie season as he scored 61.6 fantasy points (12.0 per game) from Weeks 13 to 17. In that span, he scored the sixth-most fantasy points among tight ends. In four of five games, he had at least 5 receptions for 46 yards, which are respectable numbers for tight ends in fantasy. The last four games that year took place with Olsen being injured, which allowed him to function as the starter and achieve his mini-breakout.
Coming into 2019, hopes were high with Olsen seemingly near the end of his career and Thomas potentially taking on more work. Unfortunately, Cam Newton would injure his ankle/foot in the preseason, and after two poor performances to start the season, he would not play again for the remainder of the year.
Kyle Allen finished the season at quarterback, and while he threw for 3,323 yards in 13 games, he threw a paltry 17 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He would perform at a replacement-level at best and negatively impacted the offense outside of Christian McCaffrey.
Olsen played the majority of 2019 functioning as the starter, and it hindered Thomas’ progress. Thomas finished with only two games of five or more targets (one of them being a five-catch, 57 yards, and one touchdown performance). Olsen finished the year with 52 receptions, 597 yards, and two touchdowns as the TE13 in fantasy football last season. Fast forward to the present, and Olsen is now a member of the Seattle Seahawks while Thomas has entrenched himself as the number one tight end on Carolina’s depth chart. That is good news for Thomas’ fantasy outlook in 2020.
The new-look Carolina Panthers could have major 2020 fantasy football implications, including Ian Thomas
A lot has changed since the end of last season for the Panthers, both on their roster and coaching staff as well. Long-time head coach Ron Rivera was fired and the University of Baylor head coach Matt Rhule was hired to take his place. Alongside Rhule is offensive mastermind Joe Brady, fresh off capturing a National Championship at LSU. Long-time offensive cornerstones quarterback Newton and tight-end Olsen were both released and are now on different teams. In Newton’s place, Teddy Bridgewater was signed to a three-year contract to be the new starting QB.
Bridgewater comes to the Panthers from the division rival New Orleans Saints, where he performed well-above expectations in 2019 when he was forced to step in for an injured Drew Brees. In the five games that Bridgewater played as the starter, he led the Saints to victories in all of them while throwing 1,205 yards passing (241 per game) on a 69.6 completion percentage and nine touchdowns to only two interceptions.
For 2020, Bridgewater will be behind center for a team that boasts a strong playmaking unit, including McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, fellow free agent signing Robby Anderson, and Thomas as well. He will have a lot of mouths to feed in this offense, which will be Thomas’ biggest challenge in the 2020 season.
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During Bridgewater’s stint as the starter last season, he struggled to find his starting tight end Jared Cook in the beginning. Cook did see eight targets, but he only ended up with four receptions and 28 yards. In the last two games that Bridgewater started, however, in which Cook played (he missed Week 7), he did have 7 receptions off of 9 targets for 78 yards and 2 touchdowns. Despite being a small sample size, Cook was the TE5 over those two weeks. More importantly, for fantasy, Cook was targeted four times in the red zone during those games, resulting in Cook’s touchdowns.
To this point, Thomas hasn’t been properly utilized in the red zone. He saw only 2 targets last season, catching both, and one was for a touchdown. In 2018, he caught 5 of 8 red zone targets and came away with 2 touchdowns. So he has a 70% catch rate in the red zone with only 3 touchdowns to show for it.
Olsen does leave behind 11 red zone targets from 2019 that are ripe for the taking as well. As mentioned before, Thomas has shown flashes when given the opportunity to do so. He had the best single-game performance of any tight end in 2018, according to our PFN’s own Offensive Share Metric (OSM) stats.
It will be tough for Thomas to contend with the weapons that the Panthers have in one of the most dynamic playmakers (McCaffrey) and one of the best young wide receivers (Moore) for targets. But Thomas has shown the athleticism and playmaking ability before to be a difference-maker as a receiver, and the Panthers would be foolish not to take advantage of that.
Upgrading Olsen with a full-time helping of Thomas will add yet another dangerous yet oft-forgotten offensive chess piece for Rhule and Brady to work with. A defense like the Panthers have is going to yield a lot of points as well, forcing the team to be playing catch-up and having to pass the ball a lot. There will be targets up for grabs, and the Panthers would be wise to give Thomas his fair due.
Ian Thomas’ 2020 fantasy outlook
According to FantasyPro’s PPR average draft position (ADP) data, Thomas is being selected as the 26th tight end and 212th overall. For tight ends, he is being selected after others like Blake Jarwin (20th), Olsen (23rd), and O.J. Howard (24th). Jarwin finds himself in a similar situation with Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb all taking up a large number of targets. Olsen is at the twilight of his career, with a new team and is in a very run-heavy offense. Howard is not even considered the starter on his team with Rob Gronkowski coming out of retirement to play with new quarterback Tom Brady.
All signs point to Thomas having a much better season in 2020. He will take over as the unquestioned starting tight end, he has a new offensive coordinator who is revered for his play-calling, a much better quarterback in Bridgewater, and the team’s defense is one of the worst units in football which will force the team to pass more.
Is Thomas expected to be the next Mark Andrews or Darren Waller and have a top-five scoring season? Not necessarily. But he has the right mix of athleticism, playmaking ability, snaps on the field, and overall team situation that can allow him to sneak into the top-12 this season for fantasy football scoring at the tight end position.
When you consider that tight ends get a boost in the tight end-premium scoring format, Thomas’ value is surely only going to get better. He is being drafted as a high-end TE3 in 12-team leagues when he has the upside to produce as a low-end TE1 in 2020. That is with his team’s current situation as well.
If any injuries to McCaffrey, Moore, Samuel, or Anderson were to occur, it only would increase Thomas’s potential and value as a fantasy football asset. He is a player every fantasy football manager should be targeting in their drafts and would be foolish not to. Make sure you’re not the one making that mistake come draft night.
Doug Moore is a fantasy football writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @DMooreNFL.