SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Ambry Thomas' first regular season in the NFL ended with an interception that sent the San Francisco 49ers to the playoffs.
His second season ended with four straight healthy scratches as the once-promising cornerback struggled to find a role in the NFL after prematurely thinking he had arrived.
"I just felt like mentally I wasn’t prepared, physically I wasn’t prepared,” Thomas said of his disappointing second season. “I kind of feel like it was given to me because I came off a playoff run my rookie year. But this year, anybody’s job is up for grabs. That’s how I look at it and that’s the mentality I took going into work.”
Thomas has done just that so far in training camp and the exhibition opener, going from a player fighting for a roster spot to a potential starter on what is projected as one of the NFL's top defenses.
Thomas has been getting time at outside cornerback with the first-string defense this summer with Emmanuel Moseley moving inside to the nickel position as coordinator Steve Wilks seeks the right combination in the back end.
“I feel like he definitely has the potential," Wilks said about Thomas' chances at starting. “But he needs to progress and grow from last year. I think he has the skillset and we're just really trying to hone that and just pull the best out of him.”
Thomas showed flashes of that as a rookie when he started the final five games of the regular season, capped by the overtime interception against Matthew Stafford in Week 18 that sent San Francisco to the postseason.
But instead of building on that with a strong offseason, Thomas let up a bit and quickly fell behind. He didn't get on the field for a defensive snap until Week 5 last year and played just 41 all season as others passed him on the depth chart. He then was inactive for the final regular season game and all three playoff contests.
“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,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “I’ve seen that more in people’s second seasons than any season of my career. I think that happened a little bit to Ambry.”
Thomas said he never doubted he could excel at the NFL level even as he struggled to get on the field but believed the coaches and front office probably did.
“That just made me madder and more eager to prove them wrong,” he said. “I like proving people wrong. So that was my mindset. Let’s prove them wrong.”
Midway through the 2022 season, Thomas said he already started planning out his offseason to make sure he wouldn't have a repeat of his disappointing second season.
He planned his workouts and schedule, deciding to work in the Dallas area with teammate Charvarius Ward on the physical — as well as the mental — part of playing in the NFL.
Thomas said Ward stressed making each practice rep matter and worked on building back his confidence.
The work paid off with Thomas getting a pass breakup and a fourth-down stop last week against the Raiders.
“I just feel like I’m getting back to who I am,” he said. “Last year, I don’t feel like I was me all the way. Whether that stuff was going on inside the building or outside the building, I didn’t feel like me. But now I feel like I’m back.”