Chicago Bears rookie cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. has emerged as the team’s late-season breakout player following his first career start two weeks ago against the Minnesota Vikings. In Week 16’s victory of the Seattle Seahawks, he proved he’s more than just a one-game success story.
Graham’s afternoon got off to a shaky start when he surrendered a 41-yard touchdown to Seattle Seahawks wide receiver D.K. Metcalf, but his ability to recover (mentally) after such a bad play was an encouraging sign for a guy who just a few weeks ago was running with the Bears’ practice squad.
Graham gave up just two more receptions for 13 yards after Metcalf’s big catch, and in just two games has just as many passes defended (four) as fellow defensive backs Kindle Vildor, DeAndre Houston-Carson, and Artie Burns, who’ve played the majority of the 2021 season.
To put what Graham’s done in perspective, Chicago’s premier cornerback, Jaylon Johnson, has nine passes defended this year. He’s appeared in 11 more games than the rookie sixth-rounder.
Beyond the good stats, it’s that bad rep Graham had against Metcalf that’s shed light on how good he can be despite such an ugly play. Cornerbacks need to have a short memory to thrive in the NFL. Even guys like Los Angeles Rams star Jalen Ramsey get beat; it’s part of the job description. But what separates players like Ramsey from the average NFL starter is his mental makeup. We’re a long way from knowing for sure whether Graham has that trait, but he’s off to a good start.
"It's always great for guys to learn from others and then also find that point where you can be humbled, then see if you're hungry after you get humbled," Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said this week. "In his case, he wasn't defeated after [the Metcalf TD] happened.”
With more than 100 snaps on his resume now, Graham remains the highest-graded player on the Bears’ defense, according to Pro Football Focus. His 90.2 coverage grade is nearly 10 points higher than the next closest defender (Houston-Carson). It’s been a remarkable turn of events for a rookie who didn’t make the cut at the end of training camp and was forced to work hard and wait for his turn on the practice squad.
Two games remain in the 2021 season for Graham to solidify his standing as one of the Bears’ key starters on defense next season. And if he’s able to do it, it’ll be a boon for Chicago’s offseason plan. The ability to deprioritize cornerback—an expensive position to target in free agency or the NFL draft—will allow for bigger investments around Justin Fields and the offense.
"He comes to work, he asks great questions, he wants to be a player in the league, he wants to have a career in the league; not just a one-year thing,” Townsend said. “And that's the thing that you love about him.”
Hitting on a sixth-round pick at such a premium position will expedite the Bears’ rebuilding plan, which is a few weeks from getting underway with a new head coach and, potentially, a new general manager. Regardless of how extensive the looming changes are, the next guy (or guys) charged with turning this team around will have significant boxes checked because of the success of the 2021 draft class, which now includes Graham among high-profile picks (and starters) in Fields and left tackle Teven Jenkins.