Thomas Graham turned off the NFL draft broadcast after Round 5, disgusted, and walked into the back room of the Newport Beach, Calif., house he’d rented to celebrate what he thought would be a joyous day.
The former Oregon cornerback — whom Pro Football Focus considered the 76th-best draft prospect — turned on his favorite television show and tried not to think about football.
His agent called and tried to cheer him up. His parents did too.
“They just said, ‘We believe in you, just as much as you believe in yourself,” Graham said Sunday. “‘Your name is going to get called. When it is, take advantage of that opportunity.'”
And then, finally, Bears head coach Matt Nagy called to welcome him to the team.
“How’s your day going?” Nagy asked.
Graham, who still wasn’t over falling to No. 228 overall in Round 6, didn’t sugarcoat his response.
“Long,” he told Nagy. “Frustrating.”
Then the celebration began. Everyone in the house began screaming. Relieved and thrilled, Graham eventually went for a run on the beach.
“All that did was kind of put a chip on my shoulder. …” Graham said. “So I’m just going out there ready to go play, ready to go ball and do the things that I’ve always done my whole life, which is just go out there and make my family proud.”
Friday’s rookie minicamp practice was the first practice Graham had participated in — save for Senior Bowl week — since the Ducks’ 2019 season. Graham, who would have entered his senior year as the active FBS leader with 32 breakups, decided to opt out of the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season.
Practice hasn’t been strange, Graham said, except for the fact that he’s found himself making audibles using the terminology the Ducks — not Bears — use.
He’s a quick study, though. Starting his freshman season two months after his 18th birthday, Graham led Oregon with three interceptions in 2017. He started 39-straight games in his Oregon career, totaling eight interceptions.
“I don’t think the speed is very different [in the NFL],” he said. “I think it’s just being able to learn the playbook and being able to play fast, and I feel like that’s the major difference. Definitely coming in as a rookie, I don’t know the defense. I’ve had a chance to learn some of it, but I didn’t really know all of it before I got here.
“So being able to play fast once you learn it is, I think, going to be able to slow the game down for me. Just kind of being a freshman in college all over again.”
Of the Bears’ five third-day draft picks, Graham might have the best chance to make an impact right away. The Bears cut two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Kyle Fuller and didn’t make a splash to replace him, adding Desmond Trufant on a veteran minimum deal to compete with Kindle Vildor and Artie Burns. They didn’t add anyone to replace nickel cornerback Buster Skrine after cutting him in March, leaving Duke Shelley as an option.
Graham played field corner at Oregon — always lining up on the side of the defense with the most room to run — but, at 5-foot-10, he has a slot cornerback’s build.
“I absolutely think there’s an opportunity for him,” Nagy said. “You guys could see two years ago what type of player he was. We saw it. Really, really talented.”
He’ll be coached well; Nagy said nickel cornerback is a personal expertise of both defensive coordinator Sean Desai and secondary coach Deshea Townsend.
“It’s really going to be, ‘What can he handle mentally?'” Nagy said. “And then competition, man. Let’s let those guys go out there and then see what they can do against our guys in the slot.”
Graham said the Bears want him to play both outside and inside cornerback. The latter, though, should be his fastest path to playing time.
“Me personally, I want to go out there and start, but nothing is given in this league,” he said. “You have to go take it. You have to earn it.”