San Francisco 49ers’ cornerback Ambry Thomas ended his rookie season in a somewhat storybook fashion with a future that looked bright. The 2021 third-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan had the playoff-berth-sealing interception heard ’round the Bay and looked liked he was poised for a strong second season.
“I’m not saying that I got comfortable with where I was at at the time, but I most definitely felt like, heading into my second year that, I had kind of a start on the other guys just because I had played a little bit,” Thomas told Fangirl Sports Network. “But you can set yourself back at any time and that’s exactly what I did to myself.”
Score one for self-awareness.
It was clear that Thomas was behind from the time he arrived at training camp in 2022. Then he hurt his knee during a joint training camp practice with the Minnesota Vikings. Then he suffered a fractured bone in his foot and the result of all it was a season-total of 41 defensive snaps and 138 special teams snaps.
“…Your whole life you don’t know if you can play in the league and then you get in there and human nature kind of eases up a little bit,” said 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan. “I’ve seen that more in people’s second seasons than any season of my career. And I think that happened a little bit to Ambry. That’s why he was a little bit on the outside looking in last year, but he ended up making it, he competed and this year I think he learned what happened to him.”
It was clear in the spring that Thomas had, in fact, learned. He put together a series of impressive practices, and then came to training camp having put on weight and looking sharper all around.
“I think he attacked OTAs, phase one, two and three a lot harder than he did the year before which made him look so much further ahead in OTAs than he was the last two years,” Shanahan said. “Then he leaves for 40 days and he comes back and he looks a little bit better than he did in OTAs. So, I think his mindset and everything has been great…And when you just watch out on the field, you can see his urgency and preparation is so much better.”
Thomas said his ideal playing weight is 197 pounds. He came into camp at 195 and is currently at 193.
“He had a great offseason, kept his weight up, he worked out continuously,” said 49ers’ defensive backs coach Daniel Bullocks.
The weight things keeps coming up, literally and figuratively. Thomas said he’s eating four meals a day and drinking four smoothies. Raise your hand if you’d like to eat four meals a day and four smoothies, because you have to keep weight ON? Narrator: hands were raised.
“…The thing that I see the most difference I see between AT now and a year ago is his confidence. He’s extremely confident right now in his ability to execute his assignment. He’s playing fast. He’s communicating out there. I think the game has slowed down for him. And I think the biggest thing that helped him was not having Charvarius Ward in OTAs and him getting those reps.”
Getting those reps has continued into camp.
“We’re rotating the guys to get the guys different looks, but I think AT kind of deserves it right now,” Bullocks said.
Though Thomas has put together a string of solid practices, Day 8 of training camp was arguably one of the better training camp practices of his career, as he had a solid run stop and really nice PBU in the passing game. It doesn’t hurt that new 49ers’ defensive coordinator Steve Wilks works so closely with the defensive backs.
“He’s seen what I brought from day one and he told me what I needed to work on,” Thomas said. “And ever since he told me, that’s all I’ve been working on, trying to emphasize.It’s been tremendous. Steve has really helped me with my DB technique and get better within all phases of the routes.”
For Wilks’ part, he sees something in the third-year corner that he wants to develop.
“I feel like he definitely has the potential…but he needs to progress and grow from last year,” said Wilks. “I think he has the skillset and we just really trying to hone that and just pull the best out of him…When I can grab one or two guys just to work on the fundamentals and technique, it’s awesome.”
Thomas and Ward trained together in Dallas this offseason, with Thomas taking the initiative to work with 49ers’ top corner and one of the top corners in the league.
“I just told him right after OTAs that I wanted to be down there with him,” Thomas said. “He put me on the right path as far as training, and I knew he was the guy who had his mind right going into last camp, so I wanted to be right there with him, see everything he did and who he trained with. And I just followed him.”
Ward taught Thomas, led by example, did all of the things, and from the looks of it thus far, it’s made a difference.
“He’s growing up,” Ward said. “Hopefully he continues to do the same thing. I believe in AT. He’s got a lot of talent an abilities. He just has to keep it up and know this is a cutthroat business, and just because you were drafted in the third round doesn’t mean you’re going to be a starter on a team.”
Correct. At the end of their rookie seasons, it seemed that Thomas was trending up and now-starting corner – and fellow 2021 draft classmate – Deommodore Lenoir was trending down. Things flipped in Year 2 and that added to the wake up call for Thomas.
“With me and him, first half of the season, our first year was him,” Thomas said. “Second half of the season, our first year was me…[O]ne thing we just got to keep telling each other, we’ve been here before. The year he went through it, you’ve been here before. Last year I went through it, you’ve been here before. We good. It’s just that type of thing, keeping each other’s minds right. Knowing that anybody’s one play away, and just making sure that we’re ready, so when our time comes, we don’t poop the bed.”
A Michigan education always brings the most descriptive of images – Go Blue.
The Lenoir success and motivation is not lost on Defensive Passing Game Specialist/Nickels Coach Nick Sorensen.
“Now I think it’s a realization of what [Lenoir] did and what he maybe didn’t,” Sorensen said. “But he’s got the skillset, he put the weight on, so that shows us that the intent of his goals and where he needs to be. He’s following through with that. And I think that’s transitioning to every aspect of his game.”
So now for Thomas, it’s consistency and continuing the habits he’s adopted.
“Honestly, just attacking the football aspect of things overall, more outside of the building, because in the building I attack it regardless,” Thomas said. “But outside of the building, I’m picking up on more stuff, how to take care of my body, IVs, just more film, more stuff that’s helping me actually out there on the field play faster and move faster.”
The 49ers head to Las Vegas this week for joint practices with the Raiders and their first preseason game.