A number of high-profile 2021 cornerbacks opted out for the 2020 season. Among them, Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas might be the highest-ranked 2021 NFL Draft prospect across the board. With the draft slowly approaching, it’s time to remember Thomas and why he had so much buzz coming into the year.
Ambry Thomas 2021 NFL Draft Profile
Weight: 183 pounds
Current Year: Senior
For all of the criticism Jim Harbaugh has gotten since becoming Michigan’s head coach, no one can deny his ability to bring in talent. Michigan has been one of the better recruiting schools in the Big Ten and the nation for years, and cornerback Ambry Thomas was another one of their prized acquisitions.
Thomas was a four-star prospect in the 2017 recruiting class. Rated as the 17th-best player at his position and the third-best player in the state of Michigan, Thomas chose the Wolverines over schools like Penn State, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame.
Ambry Thomas’ career as a Michigan cornerback
Thomas managed to get on the field in his true freshman season, but most of his reps came on special teams. The Wolverines communicated their confidence in Thomas’ physical abilities by using him as a kick returner in 2017. Thomas logged 397 yards on 20 returns, but he also managed to get defensive reps on a rotational basis.
In 2018, Thomas was split between roles on special teams and on defense. He wasn’t yet a full-time player on the defensive side of the ball. However, as a true sophomore, Thomas began to flash his upside as a defensive starter on the college football stage. He grabbed his first interception against Rutgers and tallied nine tackles as well.
Thomas’ rise in the 2019 season
In 2019, Thomas made the leap to the starting lineup. It would be his most lucrative football season to date. In twelve games, Thomas accrued 38 total tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, three interceptions, three pass deflections, and two fumble recoveries. Although Thomas didn’t get all-conference recognition, he was named Defensive Skill Player of the Year by his teammates.
Thomas was a highly-anticipated player coming into 2020, but the Big Ten season’s early cancellation put a hold on his expected breakout. With newfound NFL Draft aspirations after his 2019 season, Ambry Thomas ultimately decided to opt out for 2020 and declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. He joined offensive tackle Jalen Mayfield and wide receiver Nico Collins in this decision.
When the Big Ten season resumed, Mayfield returned to action. However, Thomas and Collins did not. Instead, they chose to further their NFL Draft preparation. After all, there was — and is — a lot of work ahead.
Analyzing Ambry Thomas’ 2021 NFL Draft profile
Like many in the Day 2 range, Michigan cornerback Ambry Thomas is an interesting, somewhat polarizing evaluation. He has a lot of the foundational traits people look for in cornerbacks. However, he’s also lacking in key areas, which could limit his upside at the NFL level.
Athletically, Thomas is also very good. He offers near-elite speed, as he’s likely to clock in somewhere in the high-4.3s or the low-4.4s. Thomas can gear up fairly quickly, and once he does, he has the ability to stick to a receiver’s hip pocket with ease. He’s also fairly brisk and fluid with his hip transitions, and his ability to float across the field helps him a ton in man coverage.
Down the field, Thomas is an effective cover man. I don’t think his length is elite, but he does have enough to be disruptive. Additionally, his vertical athleticism allows him to rise to the catch point when he’s in position. He’s also healthily active with his hands. This shows up both down the field and in press at the line of scrimmage. Thomas isn’t the biggest player, but he seeks out to methodically disrupt his receiver’s process with his hands. That’s a good trait to have.
What are the concerns with Ambry Thomas?
The main concerns with Ambry Thomas revolve around his size.
As mentioned earlier, while he has enough length, he’s not the longest player, and against larger outside receivers, he could be outmuscled. He has enough length, but at 183 pounds, he’s notably underweight for NFL competition. He has the athleticism and the competitive drive to compensate, but against NFL boundary receivers who are usually at least 195-200 pounds, he’ll be at a notable disadvantage when it comes to play strength and capacity to play the ball.
Among other things, Thomas can have more discipline with his spacing. While he has the athletic traits necessary to stick to his man, sometimes he gives up too much space while following the quarterback’s eyes and allows completions that way.
While he shows flashes, he’s not consistently urgent or instinctive, and this raises questions about his viability as an NFL starter. That said, most of Thomas’ qualms can be developed with time, and if he can refine his mental game and add more to his frame, he has very promising potential.
Ambry Thomas’ best fits in the 2021 NFL Draft
With his size and quickness, Ambry Thomas profiles as a good man coverage cornerback. His built-in energy allows him to traverse the field with ease, and he has enough fluidity to change directions without losing speed.
However, Thomas might not be as good of a fit in zone defenses, at least until he irons out his inconsistencies with spacing and eye discipline. Upping his weight to become a more effective tackler would also help Thomas acclimate to zone schemes, which place a big emphasis on making timely stops after the catch.
Earlier in the season, when Thomas opted out, I labeled the Michigan cornerback as a Day 2, early Day 3 prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft. I’m inclined to stick with that range for now. He has the developmental potential to start. However, questions surrounding his size and playmaking consistency will remain for the time being.
Teams that could use Ambry Thomas’ talents
I don’t think Thomas’ issues exclude him from zone consideration entirely because he does flash instincts. It’s just a matter of consistency and further refinement, which isn’t abnormal for young players (Thomas is 20 years old until September). Teams like the Patriots, Bills, Titans, Texans, and Jaguars could all be good fits for Thomas. However, if Thomas falls far enough in Round 4, his athleticism and upside should warrant him a pick from a team feeling opportunistic.
Thomas might turn teams off with his size. He’s clearly smaller than some of his opponents on tape. But with his athleticism, active hands, and mirroring ability, he can win over scouts in time. The Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine both present good chances for Thomas to boost his stock and potentially rise in a hazy cornerback class.