Thomas Graham Jr. Showed Up Big in His Starting Debut on Monday Night

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Thomas Graham Jr. Showed Up Big in His Starting Debut on Monday Night

Chicago Bears

With the entire starting secondary either on the COVID-19 IR or otherwise injured, the Bears called on former sixth-rounder Thomas Graham Jr. to make his first NFL start their Week 15 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night.

Graham Jr. fell to the sixth round after sitting out his final season at Oregon due to COVID-19 concerns and spent this season on the Bears practice squad, but the former Oregon Duck showed up in a big way on Monday night.

Graham logged three pass breakups, a passing stop, two solo tackles, and a very impressive 90.7 PFF grade for his Week 15 performance against the Minnesota Vikings. A performance that has earned him a standard contract on the Bears’ 53-man roster for the remainder of the season.

Let’s take a closer look at the rookie’s debut against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night.

Tackle (3rd & 2 from the MIN 30 – 13:41 Q1)

This is the third play of the game, and Kirk Cousins is smartly looking the rookie’s way on his first pass attempt of the game. Graham is in zone coverage, identifies the short pass to Osborn, and makes the stop with Roquan Smith. The Vikings got the first down yardage out of the play, but Graham kept the play in front of him.

Tackle (2nd & 6 from the MIN 39 – 12:29 Q1)

Cousins goes to Graham’s side of the field again on the opening drive, this time in the flat to C.J. Ham, who’s lined up on the left of tight end Tyler Conklin. Graham is in zone but gets downhill and stops the 250-pound Ham in his tracks to bring up third down for Minnesota. The Vikings would end up punting on this drive. Here’s a sideline angle of Graham identifying the play fake, covering a bunch of ground to get to Ham, and making the stop to prevent the first down.

Tackle(s) (1st & 10, 2nd &1 from CHI 35, 26 – 1:07 Q1)

Here’s Graham helping out in the running game macking back-to-back combo stops with Roquan Smith and Ledarius Mack late in the first quarter. On the first down rush by Dalvin Cook, Graham comes from the slot to aid Smith in the stop short of the sticks, and the very next play, Graham gets low on Cook and helps stop him for a short gain of two yards with the help of Ledarius Mack.

Pass Breakup (1st & 10 from CHI 12 – 15:00 Q2)

Graham is lined up above Tyler Conklin; he stays with him all the way and makes a solid diving pass breakup to keep a Minnesota touchdown off the board. A rush for no gain by Dalvin Cook and a sack by Robert Quin on third down helped ensure that Minnesota came away with only a field goal on this drive. Here’s another angle at the Graham PBU on the near touchdown pass to Conklin.

Pass Breakup (3rd & 7 from the MIN 15 – 7:54 Q2)

Kirk Cousins takes a deep shot to Smith-Marsette, but Graham is blanketing him and forces the incompletion and a fourth down for Minnesota again.

Pass Breakup (2nd & 18 from the MIN 15 – 10:22 Q2)

Kirk Cousins again looks to Graham’s side of the field on a deep shot, this time to Justin Jefferson, but Graham makes a beautiful leaping pass breakup, his third of the game.

What a performance by the rookie under the lights on Monday Night Football against a division rival. You literally can’t say enough about how good Thomas Graham Jr. looked on Monday, but why the wait if that is what he’s capable of?

It’s easy to say that Thomas Graham Jr. not making his first start until now in a season in which the Chicago Bears secondary has been thin at best behind Jaylon Johnson is yet another indictment on Matt Nagy and his inability to evaluate talent. After all, Ryan Pace identified the talent in Graham, who logged 64 tackles, five tackles for loss, two interceptions, and ten pass breakups as a 14-game starter for Oregon in 2019. Still, Nagy and his coaching staff waited until injuries forced their hand to start Graham this week. However, Graham himself said on Wednesday after practice that it wasn’t until after the bye week that he began to get his confidence back after missing his final season at Oregon.

“I needed the time in general just to help me get back in the flow of things. It took some time for me to regain my confidence, and I’ll say after the bye week is when it really started to come back, and I started to feel like who I thought I was.”

Graham continued to explain that after he began to feel confident again that he went to Ryan Pace to ask him what he could do to get a shot with the team in recent weeks, and Pace told the first-year corner to “stay in his playbook and start making some plays on the ball in practice.” Graham said that he and Ryan Pace checked in with each other a handful of times this season to discuss things that the rookie can do to get better and have a shot at cracking the 53-man roster.

Graham said that despite the Bears being eliminated from playoff contention with Monday night’s loss to Minnesota, the mindset at Halas Hall is still focused on winning football games over the last three weeks of the season.

“I want to go out there and do whatever I can to help the team win these last three games,” Graham said. “I think that’s the major focus in the building for everybody. We know we can’t make the playoffs but let’s go out there and go out on top.”

As far as the rookie’s mindset heading into his first NFL start:

“The one thing about this league is you only get one chance,” Graham said. “I knew this was going to be my one chance.”

If that was indeed the case, Graham seized the opportunity at hand and now has an extended tryout for the 2022 team in front of him these last three weeks of the season.

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Author: Patrick K. Flowers

Patrick is the Lead NFL Writer at Bleacher Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @PatrickKFlowers.