The Chicago Bears had a strong 2021 NFL Draft class. Headlined by quarterback Justin Fields and a trio of starters (or at the very least, contributors) in Teven Jenkins (second round), Larry Borom (fifth round), and Khalil Herbert (sixth round), the Bears may have uncovered another gem from April’s haul in sixth-round cornerback, Thomas Graham Jr.
Graham made his NFL debut Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings after spending the first 14 weeks of his rookie season on Chicago’s practice squad. He was so good against the Vikings’ usually explosive passing game that it had Bears fans asking why it took so long for him to crack the active roster.
The former Oregon Ducks standout hadn’t played an actual football game since the end of the 2020 college football bowl season. He opted out of last year due to COVID-19, and his draft stock suffered a bit as a result. But he proved in primetime, and without the benefit of Jaylon Johnson opposite him, that he’s not only worthy of a Bears roster spot but potentially a starting job too.
The Bears’ secondary has been a weakness all season. Aside from Johnson, Chicago’s struggled to find consistency at cornerback and safety. Kindle Vildor has been terrible in his second season in the league, earning one of the 10 lowest Pro Football Focus grades on the Bears’ defense. Duke Shelley hasn’t been much better in the eight games he’s played. As a result, cornerback was expected to be a high priority this offseason in both free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft, and while it may still be, the emergence of Graham could allow Chicago to allocate resources elsewhere.
“It was able to show everybody what I could do,” Graham said after his first NFL start. And the Bears are lucky he was able to put on that show wearing their colors. Graham was waived in August and has been subject to being poached all year while on the practice squad.
"Personally, once I got cut, I was just kind of butt-hurt, but I knew that I didn’t show everything that I needed to in camp," Graham said. "I made mistakes and I think the one thing that I didn't do that they wanted me to show was consistency. That's one thing that I showed my whole college career was a consistent corner that can go make plays in and out and I feel like during camp and during preseason, I didn't do enough of that.”
Graham’s honest assessment of his struggles during training camp should help keep the Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace critics at bay. If Graham knows he didn’t play well enough to earn a roster spot, then no one can fault Nagy and Pace for thinking the same thing last summer. Graham’s emergence is a product of his hard work to get better and the Bears’ patience to stick with him and help him develop on the practice squad.
"I felt, and they felt, that I needed to develop,” he said.
Develop he has, and for at least one game, he looked like a potential star. He was a big reason why Chicago’s secondary managed to hold Kirk Cousins to a career-low in passing yards and prevent Justin Jefferson from doing normal Justin Jefferson things.
The next three weeks will be critical for Graham to continue building on his shockingly good debut. If he proves Week 15 wasn’t a fluke, the Bears may have found their Robin to Johnson’s Batman. And that would be a huge win at a time in the season when all seems lost.