Ambry Thomas should make 49ers offseason cornerback search easier

Ambry Thomas #20 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
Ambry Thomas #20 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images) /

49ers 2021 rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas came on strong down the stretch, relieving some pressure on the team to reinforce the position entering 2022.

The San Francisco 49ers are going to need to reinforce their cornerback room this offseason. That’s a given.

But it might be less pressing a need than originally thought, particularly halfway through the 2021 campaign when Niners cornerbacks were regularly being either torched by wide receivers or committing oh-so frequent defensive pass-interference penalties.

A key reason why is the maturation and emergence of cornerback Ambry Thomas, San Francisco’s third-round pick in last year’s NFL Draft out of Michigan.

Granted, it wasn’t an easy start for the 6-foot-0, 190-pound defensive back, who was shaky during training camp and the preseason before subsequently finding himself a regular inactive over the first eight weeks of his rookie season.

Still, injuries and failed performances elsewhere on the depth chart prompted Thomas’ ascent into the starting lineup. Partially starting by necessity, Thomas surely didn’t look as if he’d be equal to the task. And that only reinforced the notion the 49ers would have to aggressively pursue cornerbacks in 2022.

They still should. But perhaps not as aggressively as originally thought.

Ambry Thomas showed improvement for 49ers over course of 2021

Thomas’ first NFL start, Week 14 against the Cincinnati Bengals and their elite trio of wide receivers — Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, didn’t go well.

According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas was credited with allowing three catches on four targets for 81 yards and a touchdown while also being flagged for two penalties. At points, Chase was 5 yards away from Thomas during his routes, making the rookie look even worse.

A week later against the Atlanta Falcons, Thomas largely stuck with his receiving targets but struggled to challenge the catch point, ultimately being credited with four catches allowed for 95 yards and a touchdown.

Improvement, yes. But it was only modest.

Things began to turn around for Thomas in Week 16, though, when the Niners traveled to take on the Tennessee Titans. In that game, and facing wide receiver A.J. Brown who nevertheless went off for 145 yards and a touchdown, Thomas only surrendered two catches for 46 yards, breaking up two passes in the process, and the Titans instead elected to target fellow corner Josh Norman frequently instead.

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The following two weeks, Thomas surrendered a combined total of only four catches for 41 yards, two touchdowns but had that game-sealing interception against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 18.

More improvement. And of the better quality, too.

Ambry Thomas provides one answer for 49ers at cornerback

To assess Thomas’ rookie year, one might argue he was OK, not good or great. But considering he opted out of his final year at Michigan in 2020 because of the pandemic, subsequently not seeing any meaningful action between 2019 and his rookie season, the slow start and proverbial rust might be explained away a bit.

San Francisco is almost guaranteed to bid farewell to Norman, a free agent, this offseason. That’d leave Thomas, Emmanuel Moseley and fellow rookie Deommodore Lenoir as the primary rostered cornerbacks for 2022.

A starting boundary tandem of Thomas and Moseley isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it shouldn’t automatically remove the 49ers from their obligations of seeking more cornerback back.

If anything, they might be afforded the opportunity of placing slightly less emphasis on it.

The key to all this, of course, will be Thomas continuing his maturation. He surely got better as the year moved along, and he certainly earned the right to be in the running for a starter’s job once 2022 rolls around.

Next. Final year-end grades for 49ers 2021 NFL Draft class. dark