49ers roster 2021: Will Ambry Thomas be a starter in year one?

Ambry Thomas #41 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Ambry Thomas #41 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

A third-round draft pick on Ambry Thomas suggests the 49ers could peg him as a rookie starting cornerback in 2021, but will that be the case?

The San Francisco 49ers needed cornerbacks in 2019, if anything to just develop them as long-term starters down the road.

Yet no NFL Draft actions took place here until 2020 when the Niners used two of their eight selections on corners, grabbing Oregon‘s Deommodore Lenoir in Round 5 after using a third-round pick, No. 102 overall, on Michigan‘s Ambry Thomas.

On the surface, it doesn’t appear as if Thomas will be pegged to be a starter right away. San Francisco seems to have its starting trio in place: Jason Verrett, K’Waun Williams and Emmanuel Moseley.

But there’s potentially going to be a long-term need, as both Verrett and Williams are back solely on one-year deals while also dealing with notable injury histories.

That could open up the door for the 6-foot, 183-pound Thomas to see a good deal of action early in his NFL career.

Ambry Thomas Defense & Fumbles Table
*2017MichiganBig TenFRDB116170.50.000021
*2018MichiganBig TenSODB117290.00.0100.0010
*2019MichiganBig TenJRDB12308383.00.0362.0320
2020MichiganBig TenSRDB

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference
Generated 7/16/2021.

Thomas opted out of his senior season because of the pandemic, so there’s going to be a question about rust as he prepares to make the transition from the college ranks to the pros.

That said, there’s a lot to like about the former Wolverine, and he could possibly make a big splash right out of the gate.

Why Ambry Thomas improves with 49ers in 2021

There were mixed reviews about Thomas during organized team activities. But considering he’s more of a press-man corner, and press contact isn’t allowed during OTAs, those reports have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Playing physical is one of Thomas’ better attributes, but he doesn’t lack for ball skills and tracking while in man coverage. Some argued if Thomas hadn’t opted out of 2020, he’d possibly be a fringe Round 1 pick, likely going early in the second round at the latest.

On top of the game tape, Thomas ran a 4.37 40-yard time during his pro day, and that speed showed up on tape, too, as he was more than capable of making up distance when beaten in coverage.

For a young cornerback learning the nuances of pro-level coverages, that’s a good trait to have and should put Thomas in a good position to ascend the depth chart.

Why Ambry Thomas struggles with 49ers in 2021

While Thomas doesn’t shy away from contact, he’s not necessarily sound, technically, and there could be some instances where getting a bit too grabby winds up landing him in some trouble with the officials.

There are also going to be concerns about him not having played meaningful football for well over a year, given his opt-out.

Considering many young defensive backs struggle early during their NFL careers against bigger, faster, stronger and more complex competition, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Thomas go through many of these growing pains early.

If the 49ers are forced to insert Thomas into a prominent role early, it could do a lot to damage his growth, development and confidence.

Projected role with 49ers in 2021

Speaking of confidence, you’ve got to love how Thomas feels about his immediate future, saying the following, via Niners Nation:

"I’ve got speed and I’m long in the defense we run. If I’m at the nickel or the cornerback spot I can make plays on the ball — make a lot of plays on the ball. Put me in a position to win, I feel like. I’ve just got to get used to the whole playbook, but once I feel like I got that, it’s over. It’s over."

Good to hear.

Related Story: Predicting 49ers cornerback depth chart after NFL Draft

Verrett and Williams’ injury histories could potentially open up the door for Thomas to assume a starter’s role at some point this season. Yet there’s another avenue for him to emerge as a starting boundary option without anyone suffering an injury.

Moseley, the presumed No. 2 boundary cornerback, has bounced back and forth onto the starting lineup the last two years. The Niners have to feel somewhat comfortable with Moseley starting, yes. But this isn’t a case where Moseley has that role locked down.

Should Thomas shine during training camp and the preseason, it wouldn’t be shocking at all to see San Francisco peg the rookie as Verrett’s cornerbacking teammate within the starting lineup.

Thomas still has a ways to go to cement this role, however, but the opportunity is certainly there.

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