49ers roster: Ambry Thomas no longer a favorite to start (but is in the mix)

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

Despite the 49ers stockpiling cornerbacks this offseason, Ambry Thomas’ strong finish to his rookie year gives him an outside shot at starting in 2022.

Few San Francisco 49ers players saw as dramatic a one-year turnaround in 2021 as then-rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas.

Fans should remember how Thomas’ turbulent season went, starting off as a third-round NFL draftee out of Michigan who opted out of his 2020 campaign and then struggling during training camp, ultimately finding himself among the weekly inactives early, only then to be pushed into a starting role late in the year amid injuries.

And, whew, Thomas’ first games were rough.

Abused by the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 13, then showing a bit more coverage abilities but still getting burned by the Atlanta Falcons the following week, then actually performing well enough against the Tennessee Titans in Week 15, Thomas’ ultimate stamp on his rookie year came in that vital must-win game against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 18 when he intercepted Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford in overtime:

Yes, a nice turnaround.

With a full year under his belt, and in light of his recognizable improvement, one might assume the Niners would seriously consider deploying Thomas in a full-time starting role in 2022.

However, after a multitude of other offseason transactions at the position, Thomas’ future is just as cloudy as it was a year ago when he broke into the league.

Why Ambry Thomas improves more with 49ers in 2022

It’s fair to wonder if Thomas’ first year in the pros would have been better had he played in 2020 instead of sitting out because of the pandemic. The lost year certainly didn’t do him favors, and it was easy to see the rust and difficulties adjusting to the NFL.

Ambry Thomas Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 7/22/2022.

On the year, Thomas allowed 20 receptions on 32 targets (62.5 completion rate) for 350 yards and three touchdowns, while opposing quarterbacks posted a 118.0 passer rating when targeting him.

Overall, those aren’t great numbers. Yet the eye test revealed dramatic improvement down the stretch.

Having fully immersed himself in the scheme for a full year, plus the understood challenges first-year defensive backs often have, there are plenty of reasons to believe he performs at a much more consistent level in year two.

Why Ambry Thomas remains a fringe player for 49ers in 2022

Despite the interception on San Francisco’s final play of the regular season, Thomas fell back to underwhelming levels during the playoffs, and he was regularly abused by Stafford and the Rams when the two teams met in the NFC Championship game.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the 49ers’ offseason stockpiling of veteran cornerbacks, namely the free-agent addition of Charvarius Ward and the re-signing of Jason Verrett, only serve to push Thomas back down the depth chart.

This will ultimately mean fewer reps during training camp and fewer opportunities to gain that much-needed experience in meaningful situations.

It’s just as possible the Niners saw all they needed to out of Thomas and figured his ceiling would be no more than a reserve backup.

Projecting Ambry Thomas’ role with 49ers this season

Thomas certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a favorite to start on the boundary opposite Ward, who’ll be the de facto No. 1 option now. Instead, either Verrett or fellow veteran Emmanuel Moseley is likely to get the nod there.

However, Thomas’ ascent last season certainly put him into the discussion, and it wasn’t as if he was the lone liability within San Francisco’s secondary during that NFC Championship loss.

At the minimum, this points to Thomas being capable of being a spot starter in case of an injury at the very least, not unlike what the 49ers have had with fellow corner Dontae Johnson in recent years, another player with whom the second-year pro will compete for depth-chart placement.

At best, it’s certainly possible Thomas outshines players like Moseley and Verrett during training camp and into the preseason, making a would-be benching impossible.

While the latter seems the less likely of the two outcomes, the fact the Niners are having that discussion at all lends some credit to the work Thomas put in a year ago.

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