The cornerback landscape of the 2021 NFL Draft is headlined by the likes of Patrick Surtain of Alabama and Shaun Wade of Ohio State. However, there are plenty of other cornerbacks looking to make a name for themselves in 2020. One such name is Michigan Wolverine Ambry Thomas, whose performance so far has shown he deserves to be in the frame as a sleeper cornerback next year.
Thomas does not have the pedigree of Surtain and Wade, but he is a multi-talented player, having contributed in all three phases of the game so far in his football career. Entering the 2020 season, he is among the large group of players needing a strong year to put his name firmly in the minds of NFL scouts, but he has also shown some real flashes of talent.
2021 NFL Draft sleeper Ambry Thomas
Thomas is a Michigan-grown kid. In high school, Thomas was a very good two-way player, lining up at both wide receiver and cornerback. As a senior, he caught 14 touchdown passes on just 34 receptions for an astounding 903 yards. On defense, he recorded 44 tackles, 14 pass breakups, and three interceptions.
He arrived at Michigan in 2017, and appeared in all 13 games as a freshman, mostly contributing as the team’s kickoff returner, totaling 396 return yards. He saw more playing time on defense in 2018. However, his main contribution still came on special teams, where he played in all 13 games compared to eight games on defense. Interestingly, he even appeared on offense in two games. 2018 saw Thomas record his first kickoff return touchdown in the season-opener against Notre Dame.
2019 saw Thomas step up on defense, appearing in all 13 games and becoming one of the starting cornerbacks. He was awarded the team’s Defensive Skill Player of the Year for a season in which he recorded 38 tackles, three tackles for a loss, two fumble recoveries, three interceptions, and four pass breakups. A very impressive return on his first full season as a defensive contributor.
Thomas’ top qualities
Thomas has continued to improve as a press cornerback. He does a good job getting his hands on the receiver at the line of scrimmage, disrupting the early portions of a receiver’s route and affecting the timing. He also sticks to receivers pretty consistently, meaning receivers don’t often create much separation from Thomas. This is evident with him both as an outside cornerback, where he also demonstrates a good understanding of using the sideline to his advantage, as well as lining up in the slot. Michigan moved him back and forth often, demonstrating their confidence in him at both roles.
On top of his strong tape as a cornerback, Thomas has put together a good kick return resume. Between 2017 and 2018, he averaged around 20 yards per return and 30 yards per game. That ability will be extremely valuable for NFL teams who often look for young players to contribute on special teams.
What does he need to improve on?
Thomas occasionally gets swallowed up in the run game and needs to continue improving on shedding his blockers. However, when he does get free of those blockers, he is a good open-field tackler, which will serve him well if he does play in the slot in the NFL.
Alabama may have a group of excellent wide receivers, but Thomas still got dominated by a couple of the Crimson Tide receivers in the Citrus Bowl. He was outplayed handily in that game and it demonstrated plenty of flaws against high-end receivers. Overall, his main aim this season needs to be to get more physical on the field in both the run and pass aspects, which will help him against the high-quality receivers he will face in the next level.
2021 NFL Draft outlook
Thomas still has room to grow entering his senior season, having been just a one-year defensive starter, and he’ll get more opportunities to take on quality wide receivers. Michigan has both Minnesota and Purdue on their conference schedule this season, which means he’ll see both Rashod Bateman and Rondale Moore, as well as Chris Olave of Ohio State at the end of the season.
Michigan also has an intriguing season-opener, at Washington, giving Thomas a chance to play a road game against a solid non-conference opponent. It will also present an opportunity to play another game in a tough environment away from home.
Thomas is very athletic and has a chance to be an early contributor to an NFL team. With continued development and coaching, he has the opportunity to be a very solid defensive back at the next level. He’s no Surtain or Wade by any means, but he should be a name people will be talking about come this time next year. If nothing else, his skills as a returner should ensure he has a chance to make an impression on NFL teams early in his career.