Rookie Ian Thomas on fast track to replace injured tight end Greg Olsen

The Panthers selected Ian Thomas in the fourth round of the 2018 draft in order to provide depth at tight end for Pro Bowler Greg Olsen. Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Greg Olsen was excited about this NFL season. He felt better than he had in several years, ready to contribute to the Carolina Panthers like he did when he became the first tight end in league history to have three straight seasons with 1,000 yards receiving, from 2014-16.

Then in the first quarter of Sunday's opener at Bank of America Stadium, in the time it took for the three-time Pro Bowl selection to accidentally step on the right foot of Dallas safety Kavon Frazier with the right foot he had surgically repaired a year ago, excitement turned to disappointment.

You could see it on Olsen's face as he politely told reporters he wasn't doing interviews -- he hardly ever declines interviews, no matter the situation -- after the Panthers' 16-8 victory.

You could hear it in Ryan Kalil's voice as the center said he was "sick to my stomach for him." You could feel it in Cam Newton's tone as the quarterback lowered his head and said, "You guys know how I feel about Greg. You can't ever replace him."

But the downside of this Week 1 victory is that the Panthers likely will have to replace Olsen for an extended period of time.

First up will be rookie Ian Thomas, a fourth-round pick out of Indiana, and then there's former Canisius College basketball player Chris Manhertz, who came to Carolina two years ago as a project.

General manager Marty Hurney will likely have to sign Jason Vander Laan, a former quarterback at Ferris State, from the practice squad or perhaps explore trade options.

None are ready to do what Olsen has done for Newton and the Panthers since 2011.

But Thomas has a chance to step up.

The 6-foot-4, 260-pound 22-year-old has made the transition to the NFL look simple. He has impressed with his smooth route running and catching, and his effectiveness as a blocker.

He didn't get as much attention before the draft as South Carolina's Hayden Hurst and South Dakota State's Dallas Goedert, who went in the first and second rounds, respectively.

But even Olsen, in an interview with ESPN.com during training camp, found it "hard to believe any of those guys are much better than Ian."

"Ian has all the traits to be a true NFL tight end," Olsen said. "He's strong enough. He can engage at the line of scrimmage. He's smooth. He's faster than you think he is. He catches the ball well. So I think Ian has a chance to have all the traits to be a complete guy."

This is earlier than the Panthers had hoped to find out if Thomas was right. But as Newton said, "In a way, Ian has been preparing for this moment."

Hurney was preparing for this moment in the draft. He had several teams call after the second day wanting to trade for the first pick of the fourth round.

He wasn't interested. Thomas was his guy, as apparently he was for one of the teams looking to trade up.

"One of them texted right after and said, 'Well, we don't have to look to trade up anymore,'" Hurney said. "So I guess they were looking to trade up to take Ian."

When Olsen broke his foot in the second game a year ago, the Panthers turned to Ed Dickson, known more for his blocking than receiving. Despite Dickson's 30 catches for 437 yards, Hurney felt he could do better and let the nine-year veteran sign with Seattle in free agency.

Thomas, who has been compared by some analysts to future Hall of Famer Antonio Gates, became the upgrade.

"He's a great kid," Olsen said. "He doesn't say a whole lot. He wants to do things the right way. He really has all the traits you want a rookie to be."

Thomas overcame a lot to get to the NFL. He lost both of his parents by the time he was 9, his father to a heart attack and his mother to a kidney infection. He was raised by his older brother, Cliff Farmer, who helped keep him out of trouble in the streets of Baltimore.

"I believe he will take on any challenge that is thrown at him," Farmer told ESPN.com in May.

The tight end always has been an important weapon for Newton and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, and now Thomas is being asked if he's ready for this challenge. "I feel that I'm getting there," he said.

Manhertz will fill the Panthers' role of a blocking tight end. He's come a long way as well after spending all of training camp recovering from the same injury -- a Jones Fracture -- that sidelined Olsen for nine games last season.

Olsen thought he was headed in the right direction during training camp. He looked quicker. He felt quicker.

Now he's just looking for a quick recovery.

"We're going to miss him while he's gone," running back Christian McCaffrey said. "But I know he's going to do everything in his power to come back as fast as possible."