SANTA CLARA — The 49ers haven’t seen rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas make a lot of plays since taking over as the starting cornerback two games ago.
While that’s a little concerning, the 49ers are fine with a lot of other things they aren’t seeing from their third-round draft pick out of Michigan.
They aren’t seeing Thomas hang his head or blame anyone else when he’s flagged for a penalty or gives up a completion — sometimes on the same play. They aren’t seeing Thomas look overwhelmed with the speed of the game or the magnitude of the moment.
So while Thomas and his uniform No. 20 may be an inviting target for quarterback Ryan Tannehill Thursday night when the 49ers visit the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, it appears he will be in the crosshairs nonetheless. Even with veteran cornerback Dontae Johnson back in the regular routine following the death of his mother, there’s every chance Thomas will get his third straight start against the Titans.
“We’ll see,” 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said.
Thomas (6-foot, 190 pounds) is already a cause for concern among 49ers fans looking for something to fret about in the midst of a streak where the 49ers have won five of six games and are on track for a playoff berth.
He got roasted against Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase and was called for a pair of illegal hands to the face penalties. Against the Falcons, Thomas was called for holding against Atlanta’s Russell Gage — and gave up a 20-yard touchdown pass anyway.
When paired with veteran Josh Norman, who at 33 is not the cover corner he used to be, outside cornerback is the 49ers’ most vulnerable position.
OMG RUSS AGAIN
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) December 19, 2021
Think of Thomas as a less expensive and more under-the-radar rookie than quarterback Trey Lance. Thomas, like Lance, wasn’t anywhere near being ready to play after being a COVID opt-out in his senior year at Michigan. It turns out Lance hasn’t been needed and is working behind the scenes.
The 49ers were leery enough about Thomas and fifth-round pick Deommodore Lenior to sign Norman and Dre Kirkpatrick as veterans rather than play the rookies. Norman has forced fumbles and done enough to stay in the lineup. Kirkpatrick was released.
Thomas, however, was thrust into action when Emmanuel Moseley was lost to a high ankle sprain. Moseley might not be back until the playoffs, the trade deadline has long passed and so Thomas has been thrust into action. Even after the struggles against Cincinnati, Thomas stayed in the lineup even though Johnson had returned as the 49ers restricted the veteran to special teams snaps.
The way the 49ers’ schedule is set up, opposing wideouts aren’t a huge issue. The Titans brought in Julio Jones to pair with A.J. Brown, but Jones is hurt, played in only eight games, and Brown has played in just 10 games as well. They’ve been predominantly a smash-mouth team. After that, the 49ers host Houston (Brandin Cooks and nobody else) before finishing against the Los Angeles Rams.
The first two are opponents that may not subject Thomas to the kind of one-on-one challenges the 49ers want to avoid.
And as glaring as some of the Thomas’ misplays have been, the 49ers’ company line is that they’re seeing some development. Against Cincinnati and Atlanta, Thomas hasn’t allowed receivers to get huge amounts of separation as much as he hasn’t made the play with tight coverage.
Getting tight coverage is the starting point for any corner. The next step is making the play. Some do it, some don’t.
Shanahan conceded Thomas was overmatched in training camp, but has gradually made improvements through his work on the scout team and handled himself better than the lowlights would indicate.
“It didn’t look like a shock to him,” Shanahan said Tuesday. “By no means was it perfect. He got beat a couple times, had some penalties. But his body language, his demeanor, he kept competing, kept trying to be physical. And by watching him and how he was moving, you could tell he wasn’t looking to hide.”
The 49ers are doing their best to hide their deficiencies at corner. Safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, as well as slot corner K’Waun Williams, are deployed to avoid leaving Thomas and Norman on an island one-on-one.
Then of course there is Nick Bosa, whose pass rush makes any corner look better because it dramatically reduces the split-seconds an opposing quarterback has to find an open receiver. Bosa’s been getting some help of late as well, with Raiders’ castoff Arden Key creating pressure from the inside.
In the end, Shanahan was fine with keeping Thomas on ice until such a time when he’d be needed.
“I don’t think he was ready, that’s why we tried to give him more time,” Shanahan said. “We were able to bring some veterans off the street who had done it, which bought us some more time.”
“I think (Thomas) was honest with himself. He kept working, didn’t get discouraged,” Shanahan said. “He’s got a long way to go and still has to get better, but he was able to play and help us out.”