"He's gotta be in the Top 5, 6 or 7," Hoener said.
Hoener had a hunch that Thomas, a 6-foot-6 target weighing over 250 pounds with 34-inch arms and 11-inch hands, could be a good player, if given the chance. Washington was rewarded for following that belief with a No. 1 tight end who had 670 yards and six touchdowns. He was seventh in his position in yards and ninth in scores.
Thomas doesn't need to make the case that he can be a top option; that's what last year was for. But with another year in the system, Hoener sees his place among the rest of his fellow tight ends to rise even higher.
"As far as the way he blocks, his total attitude as a real pro, his leadership qualities, and then his production as a receiver is obviously proven," Hoener said. "I just look for that to keep going up and up."
Hoener already saw the improvements Thomas made this offseason, albeit in a sample size of about a month, during OTAs and minicamp. The biggest jumps have come as a pass-catcher; he has a better understanding of route trees and is sharper in his breaks. Chalk it up from his experience as a quarterback, but he also has developed a stronger rapport with the quarterbacks.
Hoener estimated that Thomas was in "over a thousand" plays last year, so in terms of being a reliable target, he's one of the best Washington has at its disposal.
"He can...totally understand where he needs to be," Hoener said, "and where the quarterback expects him to be."
That comes from staying in constant communication with the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks. They discuss how they want certain plays to be run and what they're looking for in his body language during plays. There's nothing complicated to it; it's exactly how he would connect with them off the field.
"It's just communicating, talking," Thomas said. "Watching a little film together and getting on the same page."
The comfort and confidence in the system is where Thomas feels he has grown the most. Aside from his growth in the passing game, he also has a better grasp on his footwork on run blocks. Confidence is a crazy thing, Hoener said, and after Thomas made a few key plays, his whole persona changed.
"Fortunately, for him and for us, he had to play a lot so he was getting more and more reps each game," Hoener said.
If the physical evidence isn't enough to be convinced of Thomas' growth, just look at the numbers. He and Chase Young were among Pro Football Focus’ most valuable additions with Thomas earning .34 Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
And over the course of the offseason, he earned Ron Rivera’s approval for his efforts toward improvement.
"He's made some really good strides, he's got a quarterback background so he has a little bit of a jump start on a lot of things compared to a lot of guys. He is doing great. He's developing, he's growing into the role even more so. It's fun to watch him, he's got the good skillset and he is a guy that contributes a lot for us."
Obviously the physical aspects of Thomas' game stand out to Rivera. But like Hoener, Thomas' mental traits are where he sees the tight end making more strides.
"Just having the sense that he's really starting to take what we do offensively," Rivera said, "and his knowledge of the game and using it to help himself understand how to do things better."
It might be difficult to have as big a leap as what happened in 2020. He more than doubled his three seasons of production in 16 games. But then again, Hoener already sees him as one of the better players at his position, so he might not need to ascend that much further.
"The things he's worked on, the things we've been talking about...I'm really starting to see it get better on the field," Hoener said. "I think those things will keep improving as he continues to have the success he has."