Junfu Han-USA TODAY Sports

Junfu Han-USA TODAY Sports


For The Record - 49ers CB Ambry Thomas

Justin Wong
May 18, 2021 at 5:45 PM2


While NFL Draft pundits and fans alike can give instant reactions to their team's player selections, it's easy to forget that the true value of the picks cannot be fully assessed until after a couple of seasons. Some players become instant starters (Nick Bosa), while others remain works in progress (Javon Kinlaw). Having said that, I want to pull out the receipts on what draft analysts were saying prior to the draft, along with their player comparisons. With the 2021 NFL Draft now in the books, let's review what various scouting outlets were saying about the 49ers' draft picks in this mini-series, "For The Record". After drafting Ohio State running back Trey Sermon earlier in the third round, the San Francisco 49ers selected Michigan cornerback, Ambry Thomas, with the 102nd pick.


NFL Player Comparison: Kendall Fuller

Dane Brugler of The Athletic thinks Thomas can "survive on an island at every level of the field" in his 2021 NFL Draft Guide:

Thomas competes with the requisite mental and physical toughness to survive on an island at every level of the field. While he stays controlled in his transition, he must do a better job relying on his fundamentals and protecting vs. inside releases/routes. Overall, Thomas relies more on his physical nature than seasoned technique, but his athleticism and competitive mentality are strong selling points. He projects as a bump-and-run NFL corner with starting upside.

NFL Analyst Lance Zierlein sees Thomas as a "future starting nickel back for a zone-heavy cover unit."

Feisty press-man cornerback who plays the role of nuisance underneath. Plays with good patience and feel for mirroring the release and gets hands on his target within the first five yards. Thomas tends to be physical in coverage, which sometimes leads to penalties. He's a former high school receiver with natural tracking and ball skills. He does a solid job of crowding opponents down the field. He's not as long or explosive as teams might like outside and might lack the twitch to handle certain slot receivers as a nickel. Thomas plays with above-average awareness and consistency, though, and he's a very willing and capable tackler who can also play on special teams. His best fit could be as a future starting nickel back for a zone-heavy cover unit.

ESPN Scout Inc.'s draft grade of Thomas gave him a 58 grade for being "faster than quick."

Thomas is a tall, long, lean and fast press-man corner. He's faster than quick, and he's a step late recovering when he gets caught out of phase. He lacks the fluidity to mirror better route runners. He flashes the ability to pluck away from his frame, but he's not a natural hands catcher. He can improve getting off blocks but he's a physical corner and an excellent open-field tackler. Thomas can provide depth while making valued contributions on special teams early in his career. He could develop into a No. 2 if he continues to make strides

During its live analysis of the 2021 NFL Draft, Pro Football Focus said his skills will "translate right away in the NFL" but given his opt-out during the 2020 season, Thomas remains a "big unknown":

Thomas plays way above his 6-foot, 191-pound frame. He comes from a pro-ready scheme where he played a lot of press-man coverage, which should translate right away in the NFL. He's fast and plays physically but still isn't that strong. The problem with Thomas is that we don't know much about him. He was a former four-star prospect but didn't play in 2020, so he only has the 672 snaps from 2019 and the 104 snaps from 2018 under his belt. He's a big unknown.

The 49ers ended up drafting three defensive backs in the draft, but for context purposes, fans at the time were frustrated that the team had not addressed its needs in the secondary. The team's first three premium draft picks filled out the offensive side of the football until it finally selected Thomas with the 102nd pick. It's now been reported that 49ers assistant general manager Adam Peters had been eyeing Thomas specifically with the 49ers' first defensive pick in the draft class.


Drafted late in the third round, Thomas is the highest-drafted cornerback in the Shanahan/Lynch era since former 49ers Ahkello Witherspoon was selected 66nd overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. Witherspoon had his moments but ultimately was allowed to walk in free agency and signed on with the division rival Seahawks.

It seems like the 49ers scouting department has shifted its defensive philosophy with the selection of Thomas. In comparison to Witherspoon's lengthy 6'2" wiry frame, Thomas has a smaller, physical frame at 5'11" and was known for his tenacity as a man-press cornerback during his time at Michigan. It's worth noting because while former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh took his talents to New York, this draft selection might suggest current 49ers defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans will want to blitz more and rely on more man coverage. Already, the 49ers were stepping away from zone coverage schemes last season as they adjusted to injuries, but perhaps there's something more to it.

Draft experts are mixed on where he projects at the next level, whether he's better suited inside at nickel back or outside as a No. 2 cornerback. Personally, I think he has the makeup to become a solid outside cornerback with a similar player comparison to the current No. 2 cornerback, Emmanuel Moseley. His physicality will be a welcomed addition to the unit, but his recovery speed after initial contact with receivers will be under scrutiny.

His expected draft-day projection was in the round 3-4 range, but this might end up being a value pick that pays dividends. Thomas was one of Michigan's more prominent defenders in 2019 but opted out in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns after recovering from colitis. Had Thomas played another full season in 2020, he could have been looking at a much higher projection in the NFL Draft. The fact that Thomas battled medical issues and still played at a high level in 2019 speaks volumes about his toughness. Thomas seems to have the mental makeup to compete at the NFL level and even offers some upside as a returner on special teams. In the best-case scenario, Thomas comes to camp ready to compete with Moseley for a starting job opposite of Jason Verrett, but ultimately provides depth for a team featuring a starting secondary rostered on one-year deals.

  • Justin Wong
  • Written by:
    Justin Wong has been writing for the 49ers Webzone since 2017 while also running an NFC West blog and podcast called Just The West. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to @JustTheWest on Twitter.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


2 Comments

  • Bill
    Hey Tru. That's the point. He puts everything he can find on the player here, so you don't have to go looking for it.
    May 19, 2021 at 10:17 AM
    1
    Response: Thank you, I'll have more insight big picture once I wrap up the entire draft class.
  • Tru
    Laziest writer I've ever seen. All he does is copy and paste off of sites from Google searches. Come on man!
    May 18, 2021 at 6:49 PM
    1
    Response: Laziest in the game! Come on man!

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