49ers are wise to continue letting Ambry Thomas take his lumps
By Peter Panacy
The 49ers have stuck with rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas as a starter the last two weeks, which has produced a lot of necessary growing pains.
San Francisco 49ers fans are probably realizing why head coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff were reluctant to feature more of third-round rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas earlier this season despite the relatively high NFL Draft investment in him.
Over the last two weeks, though, the Niners had little other choice but to play Thomas, mainly due to the ankle injury suffered by fellow corner Emmanuel Moseley.
Thomas’ two starts, first against the Cincinnati Bengals and then again versus the Atlanta Falcons, haven’t gone well. He was credited with allowing seven catches on seven targets over that two-game span, according to Pro Football Focus, and he was slated with having allowed a touchdown in each of those games, too.
Yet San Francisco won both of those games. So, proverbially speaking, no harm equals no foul.
True, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans has been tasked with covering up Thomas’ shortcomings by playing more zone defense and employing more Cover 2 looks with safety help over the top.
Meanwhile, Thomas has to be taking advantage of the opportunity despite the initial ugliness.
Ambry Thomas showed 49ers some positives in two-game stretch
It’s common for young defensive backs to struggle. Opposing receivers are bigger, faster and stronger than those at the collegiate levels, routes and offenses are far more complex, and it can take a few years before a cover defender fully acclimates.
Just like 49ers safety Jimmie Ward‘s experience early in his career, and he backed Thomas’ growing pains as a learning experience:
It’s possible to see that progression amid the learning curve for Thomas, too. And even though the results themselves were mostly the same, there are some positive developments.
On the touchdown Thomas gave up to Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, the cornerback eased up his coverage route and subsequently let Chase accelerate into a position where Thomas had no chance of catching up:
Fast-forward to Week 15 against the Falcons when quarterback Matt Ryan looked to take advantage of Thomas with regularity.
Thomas’ touchdown allowed to wide receiver Russell Gage resulted in defensive pass interference, which was declined in favor of the score. But on that play, and the additional one below, Thomas nevertheless ran step-for-step with his opposition, including the 21-yard gain to Gage:
Granted, Gage isn’t of the same ilk as Chase. But it was nevertheless somewhat reassuring to see the rookie corner match his receiver in stride.
Now, if the coaching staff can merely teach him to attack the catch point.
Why Ambry Thomas’ development is crucial for 49ers
Yes, the Niners will fully embrace Moseley as the starter opposite veteran cornerback Josh Norman upon the former’s return from injury. If San Francisco winds up making the playoffs this season, it’ll need its top-caliber players on the field.
Thomas isn’t anywhere close to being at that level.
Still, it’s important to recognize the fact Thomas opted out of his 2020 collegiate campaign at Michigan, meaning training camp was his first fully organized and padded activity he participated in since his junior year in 2019.
Learning those nuances, particularly at the pro level, is going to be vital in his development.
Read More: 49ers game grades from complete win over Falcons
Long term, the 49ers have plenty of questions at the position anyway, and those aren’t likely to be answered solely by banking on Thomas’ ascent into a potential starter’s role. But Moseley will be a free agent in 2023, and Norman probably won’t be around in 2022 either, meaning Thomas’ maturation has to produce positive results.
Even though the last two weeks haven’t been pretty, there have been modest signs of improvement. And the fact the Niners didn’t bench Thomas in favor of one of the few other options they had on the roster suggests they’re willing to be patient with his development, too.
As long as it’s not costing San Francisco any games, although that’s come close during these last two bouts.