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Thomas' contributions to 49ers' defense come ahead of schedule

/ by Matt Maiocco
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Ambry Thomas

When the 49ers selected cornerback Ambry Thomas in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft, they knew he was not ready to step in and play as a rookie.

After seeing him in training camp, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan came to the conclusion Thomas was not even remotely close to exhibiting the strength and technique needed to make a contribution.

“Ambry has definitely made a believer out of me in the second half of the season, and I would not have believed he could have with how it started off,” Shanahan said after Thomas’ game-clinching interception in overtime preserved the 49ers’ all-important 27-24 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the regular-season finale.

Shanahan preferred to spin his blunt assessment of Thomas’ early-season readiness into a praise of the rookie who has supplanted veteran Josh Norman in the starting lineup after Emmanuel Moseley’s return from an injury.

“That sounds kind of harsh, but it’s not,” Shanahan said of Thomas. “It’s a huge compliment. It took him some time, but when he got his opportunity, which was from injuries, he was ready, and he competed. He just showed a lot of what’s in him.”

The 49ers were holding onto a three-point lead in overtime when Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford decided to take a shot deep down the right sideline for veteran wide receiver Odell Beckham.

Thomas ran stride for stride with Beckham while also tracking the ball in the air.

 

Beckham appeared to gain separation at the last instant, but only because Thomas was aware Stafford’s pass was underthrown. Thomas slowed and made the interception that ended the game and sent the 49ers to the playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons.

“I just had to do my job: See the ball, go get the ball,” Thomas said.

“After the Green Bay game, we noticed a lot of teams would just throw the ball up and hope for PI or for the guy to come down with the ball. We always work in practice on going to get the ball.”

Back in April, the 49ers were concerned the Detroit Lions, at No. 101, would select Thomas, a Detroit native. Instead, the Lions went with Syracuse cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu.

Thomas’ playmaking ability was an area game of his game that general manager John Lynch  highlighted for why the 49ers picked Thomas at No. 102 overall.

“I think his greatest asset is poise at the moment of truth,” Lynch said on draft day. “When that ball’s in the air, he has an ability to locate it. Which is not as easy to find as you might think for DBs.”

Thomas showed that awareness in the most crucial of situations on Sunday.

“Everybody wants to talk stuff about the corners, but when the ball is in the air, that’s the only guy you see, him on his man," Thomas said. "It’s a challenge. My hat’s off to cornerbacks that really play at a high level.”

Thomas played effectively during the 2019 season at Michigan even after losing 35 pounds from a struggle with colitis during the summer. Then, he opted out of the 2020 college season due to concerns from COVID-19.

Lynch gave credit to 49ers Vice President of player personnel Adam Peters for identifying Thomas’ potential for a reason he “gained steam” throughout the evaluation process. Lynch said Peters "championed" Thomas as the 49ers put together their final draft board.

Now, Thomas is rewarding the organization for placing its trust in him.

Thomas made his fifth consecutive start to end the regular season on Sunday, and his play has gotten better and better and better. It could be that the 49ers have found a young cornerback who is going to be a starter for a long, long time.

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Peters was the last person to greet Thomas after he came off the field and entered the winning locker room following Sunday's victory. Peters joyously lifted Thomas into the air. They shared an enthusiastic embrace as they yelled in celebration after Thomas played such a key role in enabling the 49ers to earn a spot in the playoffs.

Thomas had the football from his first career interception firmly tucked under his left arm.

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