SANTA CLARA — One of the longest held beliefs among NFL coaches is that the biggest leap in a player’s development comes between Year 1 and Year 2.
How, then, to explain Ambry Thomas, who started slowly as a rookie cornerback before inserting himself into the picture of a playoff team and then played so infrequently in 2022 the 49ers could have been forgiven for filing a missing persons report.
Thomas was praised Tuesday by new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks for doing a “tremendous job” in a 34-7 loss to the Raiders in the preseason opener, just as Kyle Shanahan did on Monday, calling Thomas “a different player.”
Taken in the third round, No. 102 overall out of Michigan, the 49ers were intrigued with Thomas’ length and coverage ability at 6-foot, 190 pounds. But after a 2022 season during which seldom was heard an encouraging word, there were no guarantees Thomas would even make the roster this season unless he made people sit up and take notice.
So far, it’s been an impressive re-entry into relevance.
“The second year, I just felt like mentally I wasn’t prepared, physically I wasn’t prepared,” Thomas said. “I kind of felt like it was given to me because I was coming off a playoff run in my rookie year. This year, anybody’s job is up for grabs. That’s how I look at it.”
Indeed, Wilks said the 49ers are still determining their best combination in the secondary. Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson are the safeties, and Charvarius Ward is carved in stone at one corner.
At practice Tuesday, Wilks experimented with Deommodore Lenoir, thought to be the other starter, as a slot corner along with others. Isaiah Oliver, a free-agent signee and a presumptive starter at nickel, now appears to be in a battle for playing time.
If the 49ers are serious about moving Lenoir inside, Thomas or Samuel Womack II could emerge as a potential starter on the outside.
Which would only serve to make his career trajectory look like a Richter Scale reading. A COVID-19 opt-out in his last year at Michigan, Thomas was so raw as a rookie that he was inactive in five of his first seven games. He got better to the point where he started five times, finishing the regular season with an overtime interception of Matthew Stafford that gave the 49ers a 27-24 win and put them in the playoffs.
As for last season, if Thomas hadn’t been a third-round pick, the 49ers may have cut him.
One year after being a starter and playing in the playoffs, Ambry Thomas (20) played just 41 snaps on defense in 2023. Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group
“Your whole life, you don’t know if you can play in the league and then you get in there and kind of ease up a little bit,” Shanahan said. “I think that happened a little bit to Ambry. That’s why he was on the outside looking in last year. He learned from what happened to him. His urgency and preparation is so much better.”
Thomas played only 41 snaps all season as the 49ers’ train moved on without him. He was inactive for all three playoff games.
“After Week 8 last year, I just put it in my mind what I was going to do in the offseason,” Thomas said. “I knew when I was leaving where I was going and who I was training with. That’s when it kind of clicked in for me.”
One of his workout partners was Ward, who went from undrafted free agent to owner of a three-year, $40 million contract with the 49ers with a professional approach.
“He’s growing up,” Ward said. “Hopefully he continues to do the same thing. I believe in A.T. He’s got a lot of talent and abilities. He just had to keep it up and know it’s a cut-throat business and just because you were drafted in the third round doesn’t mean you’re going to be a starter on a team.”
Thomas said he took two weeks off following the season before getting down to it with Ward in what he called “my most structured offseason.”
Ward’s message? Make each practice repetition matter and have confidence in your ability.
“(He helped with) just knowing why I’m here and I’m here for a reason,” Thomas said. “Bringing back that dog mentality that I played with. Good rep, bad rep, it’s just the next rep. I’m going to be me at the end of the day, lose or win.”
Hufanga, who was primarily a special teams player as a rookie but blossomed into an All-Pro safety in Year 2, has taken note of Thomas’ path.
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“A lot of it stems from the offseason. I think he put himself in good position to come in and fight for a job,” Hufanga said. “All kudos to A.T. for coming in and having a great camp. He looks really good in his technique, smooth and deliberate. And he has the mindset you love in a corner.”
Thomas has no plans for another backslide into oblivion.
“I know what I can do and I just feel like I’m not all the way there yet, but I’m getting there and can feel it,” Thomas said. “I’m going to keep on working, show what I can do in these preseason games and show the coaches I’m one of the players in this team they can lean on and trust.”