A cornerback in football is tasked with some of the more unique responsibilities. In a game now predicated on the arms of quarterbacks and their ability to play pitch-and-catch with their pass targets, cornerbacks have, by far, the most delicate playing balance to be mindful of. Their job, mostly, is to prevent passes from being completed, to be certain an offense doesn’t take its roots downfield. But they have to straddle the line between being physical and demanding with receivers, or otherwise impede progress with sometimes the faintest of touches while being punished for it.
Chances are, in the event of a mythical 50-50 ball, a cornerback in 2021 is not going to receive the benefit of the doubt if there’s tons of contact between him and the receiver. Far from it. The NFL has not eliminated the very concept of defense, but it would be foolish to suggest they don’t prefer an emphasis of passing yards, offense, and points. One of the main ways to carry on such a mandate is to defang the cornerback in these situations, to skew toward the receiver winning the all-important one-on-one battle.
It has arguably never been more hard to play professional cornerback. It has also arguably never been more important to a defense to have competent cornerbacks, on the inside and outside. To succeed in the slot, or on the boundary, you have to be tough, smart, and confident. Your skin must be thicker than the raw hide of any swamp beast, and your memory shorter than that of a goldfish, especially when burned.
Fortunately, for the Bears and Thomas Graham Jr, that seems to be his exact profile as a defensive back.
I spoke with Adam Chimeo, the Managing Editor of Addicted to Quack — SB Nation’s Oregon affiliate — to learn a little more about the fiery Graham Jr. What I found was a cornerback perfectly suited to a contemporary defensive scheme, and a man who will never let himself dwell in his own mental doldrums.
1. An impact contributor from the get-go, it certainly seems that if not for his decision to opt out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, Graham Jr. would’ve been regarded as one of the best corner prospects in this draft. In fact, based on the three years he did start, many draft analysts saw him as a safe early Day 2 talent. How would you describe Graham Jr.’s journey at Oregon? Where did he most make an impression?
Adam Chimeo: I don’t think it’s outlandish to say that Thomas Graham Jr. played a crucial role in rebuilding the Oregon football program after the firing of Mark Helfrich. Oregon’s secondary was a joke in 2016 — the season before Graham Jr.’s arrival — allowing PAC-12 foes to rack up an average of 285 yards per contest. Helfrich’s 4-8 campaign would be his last, and the hiring of Willie Taggart reinvigorated the dated recruiting techniques of the old regime. His 2017 class was highlighted by two four-star cornerbacks, Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir —both picked in the first six rounds of the 2021 Draft.
Despite Lenoir being the higher rated of the two, it was Graham Jr. that earned the starting spot his freshman season. He played in all 13 contests, starting in the final 12, while tallying three interceptions during that stretch. His 824 snaps during his freshman campaign (second-most in the country by a true freshman cornerback) helped him pick up steam towards his breakthrough sophomore season. There, he started all 13 games, once again tallying three interceptions (one he returned to the house against Oregon State), and finished with 18 pass breakups.
Graham Jr.’s third and final season punctuated his impressive Oregon career with a Rose Bowl victory, a feat that was accomplished in large part due to a Duck secondary that had drastically improved since his freshman year. Before COVID-19 changed the trajectory of 2020, Graham Jr., Lenoir, Brady Breeze, and Jevon Holland were planning on returning for one final ride to form what was being called possibly the best secondary in college football. But alas, the pandemic had other plans, and Graham Jr. made the safe decision to declare for the draft, though perhaps staying would have helped boost his draft stock purely because there would be more recent tape to study.
Still, Graham Jr. and his 39 consecutive starts were as crucial to this program as Justin Herbert’s decision to play for his hometown team. Both were able to lockdown a starting spot early and provide NFL talent to an important position of need.
2. A common refrain about Graham Jr. appears to be how self-motivated he is. How often pundits, opponents, and even occasionally his own coaches and teammates (not necessarily at Oregon) doubted him, and how it served as fuel to his fire. But aside from the skepticism, Graham Jr. already appears to be talking like he’s “one of the guys” on the Bears, specifically naming Khalil Mack and former high school acquaintance Jaylon Johnson as guys who will give him an opportunity to make plays in interviews. That’s not something you normally see from a sixth-round pick, let alone most rookies. But Graham Jr. isn’t shying away. Can you give any context to that mindset? How might it benefit him in the NFL?
AC: I definitely think his growing relationship with Mack and Johnson are helping to bolster his confidence. I also believe Graham Jr. has been waiting for this moment for a very long time and is ready to make an immediate impact. I only see this mindset as a positive, because even though he’s confident in his abilities, he also plays with a level-headedness that allows him to make up for some of his physical limitations (many scouts were wary of his height at 5-foot-11.)
I think the best example of Graham Jr.’s workmanlike mentality would be his rapid improvement from his freshman year to his sophomore season, specifically in his two games covering former Arizona State standout, N’Keal Harry. As a freshman, Graham Jr. was thrown to the wolves and forced to cover Harry. The wolf won by tallying 170 yards and a touchdown on seven catches, many of those yards coming off of routes in which Harry straight up outran or outsmarted the true freshman. However, when the two met the next year, Graham Jr. was able to exact his revenge by keeping Harry out of the end zone and ASU out of the PAC-12 championship game. The Sun Devil star still managed to rack up 105 yards on seven catches, but the level of play from Graham Jr. drastically improved from their first outing.
As a freshman, opposing quarterbacks targeted Graham Jr. often, but it didn’t take long for the tape to tell his story. By 2018 they elected to take their chances with Lenoir on the other side of the field.
3. What are Graham Jr.’s strengths as a cornerback? What will he do well immediately? How should Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai structure his development plan for him?
AC: We happen to have a hybrid Ducks-Bears fan who frequents our site and goes by the name “DoubleDuck.” I decided to take full advantage of the boards and posed this question to him and any other supporters at Addicted to Quack. Instead of paraphrasing his well-put response, I’ll quote him here and deem him the official ATQ-WCG Ambassador:
“Desai coached under Fangio along with Jim Leavitt. So, the defense will be based on the same concepts. Graham has already acknowledged as much after the rookie minicamp. He also said he was told to learn both the CB and Nickel positions as he’s got a chance to compete for a job in both. Given his willingness to mix it up with bigger guys, starting at Nickel (a position very much of need in Chicago) is a pretty high probability.”
“...While slot does require some quickness, Graham has the toughness, willingness to engage bigger guys (which he’ll need with TEs), ability to rush from the slot, run game capabilities, and smarts to handle working in traffic in the middle of the field. He’s got plenty of traits that lend themselves to playing that position.”
4. What are Graham Jr.’s weaknesses as a cornerback? Where might he struggle initially? What will the Bears’ defensive staff have to particularly focus on early in the course of his development?
AC: Like any rookie that earns playing time, it may take him a while to adjust to the talent, speed, and size of the NFL. Look at the discrepancy in Power Five draftees and you’ll see that the PAC-12 is lagging behind the other conferences in elite talent. Graham Jr. doesn’t have the raw talent to overcompensate for mistakes. It would be wise for the Bears’ staff to double down on his tackling technique to make sure he’s consistently attacking large ballcarriers in an efficient manner.
That being said, I would list sure tackling as a strength of his. One thing you’ll want to keep an eye on is Graham Jr.’s ability to cover sideline go-routes. In the words of our film reviewer Hythloday, “He doesn’t have the top-end speed or height to knock those down.”
If he’s working as a nickel, maybe that won’t come in to play as often.
5. What is a favorite anecdote or moment of yours about Graham Jr.’s collegiate career?
AC: One play that always comes to mind isn’t necessarily one of TGJ’s best, but it sealed a much-needed win that got the Ducks to a PAC-12 Championship game and eventually the Rose Bowl. Jermar Jefferson, an intimidating Oregon State running back who was drafted by the Lions in the seventh round, was looking to extend a late drive that could have tied the contest up by hurdling over Graham Jr. But as Jefferson elevated over the undersized cornerback, Graham Jr. rose to the occasion and clipped Jefferson’s foot mid-flight. It resulted in a fumble that was quickly gobbled up by Brady Breeze.
This crunch-time play against elite talent was something that we saw time and time again from Graham Jr.. It’s something that Bears fans should be excited to see in the near future.
Adam Chimeo is the Managing Editor of Addicted to Quack. Read his writing and work here.