With Emmanuel Moseley coming back, the 49ers will have a depth-chart decision to make at cornerback, and it should involve Ambry Thomas over Josh Norman.
Earlier in 2021, it would have been nearly impossible to imagine San Francisco 49ers rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas being inserted into a starter’s role without the utmost concern he’d be burned regularly by even the most average of NFL receivers.
And when Thomas was finally put into that role in Week 14, those concerns were fully warranted. Thomas was regularly abused by Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase, giving up three receptions on four targets for 81 yards and a touchdown, all the while looking wholly out of position in the process.
Yet Thomas, the Niners’ third-round pick from the 2021 NFL Draft, has steadily improved since then. His improvements have been noticeable to the untrained eye, too, as the following Week 15 contest against the Atlanta Falcons saw him stay in close contact with his receivers, just not attacking the catch point.
By Week 16, Thomas was breaking up passes and forcing opposing quarterbacks to target other areas of San Francisco’s secondary, an aspect that carried over into the 49ers’ Week 17 home game against the Houston Texans.
Thomas was targeted twice in that game and gave up one catch for a single yard, breaking up another pass in the process.
It was his best game as a pro by far, putting the 49ers into a situation where they should make an easy decision.
49ers have to start Ambry Thomas over Josh Norman when Emmanuel Moseley comes back
Few players on the Niners roster this season have had as big an up-and-down campaign as veteran cornerback Josh Norman, a free-agent pickup intended to fill the void left by a season-ending injury to Jason Verrett way back in Week 1.
Sure, Norman has had his moments, including forcing six fumbles this season. But he’s also been highly prone to defensive pass-interference and holding calls over the year, too, currently leading San Francisco’s defense with five DPI calls against, including one that went for 33 yards against Houston.
Norman was subsequently benched after that, and head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters after the game it wasn’t an injury-related decision.
An endorsement for Thomas, perhaps.
Yet the bigger decision for the 49ers will be when fellow corner Emmanuel Moseley returns off injured reserve after suffering an ankle sprain way back in Week 13.
Particularly in wake of Norman’s benching, then paired with Thomas’ ascent towards being a quality cover cornerback, the Niners’ starting boundary tandem at the position should be Moseley and Thomas.
Not Moseley and Norman.
Norman filled a need when signed. His ups have certainly helped San Francisco get to nine wins on the season entering Week 18, but he’s also been a prime reason why the 49ers secondary is widely viewed as the team’s biggest weakness over the course of the year.
Considering Thomas is proverbially “in it for the long haul,” it makes zero sense for the Niners to go with the veteran over the rookie from this point forward.