The Chicago Bears' secondary was the talk of the game heading into Monday Night Football because of the unknown. At the conclusion of the game, Thomas Graham Jr. was a known name.
With a secondary unit depleted by COVID-19, the most experienced cornerback on the team entering the game was Kindle Vildor. But it was Thomas Graham Jr. who stole the show. Although the Vikings were missing Adam Thielen, their offense featuring Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Tyler Conklin posed a serious threat to an unknown secondary. In total, Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins logged 87 total passing yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and was sacked four times.
The pass-rushing unit led by freshly-named Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Quinn was outstanding on Monday night. Its constant pressure certainly helped the secondary as Cousins didn't have much time to survey the field and let plays open up, but Graham and company did not allow the Vikings to have a field day. A quick look at the box score shows that Thomas Graham Jr. finished with seven total tackles and three passes defended, but a deeper look provides much more insight.
Anthony Treash of Pro Football Focus noted that Graham's debut was among one of the very best this season. Graham allowed just 10 total yards and recorded one passing stop plus three pass breakups for a PFF grade of 90.7 in his debut.
Following Monday night's loss, Graham Jr. said he leaned on Jaylon Johnson all season to prepare him for any opportunity to play at the NFL level. In hindsight, the Bears may have stumbled on their two best corners and a building block to work around in the secondary.
It's only one game, and to prevent an overreaction, it's too soon to say that the Bears have two very good cornerbacks. But after his standout debut, one question remained: Why did it take so long for Thomas Graham Jr. to get an opportunity?
A sixth-round pick out of Oregon in the 2021 NFL Draft, Graham Jr. opted out of his senior season with the Ducks 2020. In his collegiate career, he appeared in 40 games, compiling 182 total tackles, eight interceptions, and one forced fumble, showing a knack for knowing where the football was. Graham Jr.'s stellar debut is the latest example of inspiring play by late-round draft picks from the Bears' 2021 class. Running back Khalil Herbert (sixth round) and offensive tackle Larry Borom (fifth round) have both made contributions throughout the season.
The Bears' offensive struggles are under the spotlight this season due to Justin Fields' woes as a rookie quarterback and Matt Nagy's clumsy system taking center stage. However, the defense led by Sean Desai deserves a significant spotlight. Sure, the secondary has experienced its woes throughout the season, but the pass rush ranks third in the NFL with 40 total sacks. Linebacker Roquan Smith was clearly a Pro Bowl snub, but the secondary unit has been looking for better production.
Kindle Vildor, Artie Burns, Xavier Crawford, and Marqui Christian, are all names that have tried to play opposite of Jaylon Johnson, who is the team's undoubted leader in the secondary, but the production simply hasn't cut it. Graham Jr. provided a glimmer of hope on Monday night, and with the team eliminated from playoff contention, the rookie has earned his opportunity to play throughout the remainder of the season.
The Bears have had success in recent years finding diamonds in the rough in the latter stages of the draft. Graham Jr. could join that list if his Week 15 debut was any indication of the future. Finding such players late in the season and giving them the opportunity to show their potential not only allows for a player to be labeled as a "steal" but also helps the team heading into the offseason as they look to address needs to better their roster.
Thomas Graham Jr. stole the Bears' spotlight on Monday Night Football despite the narrative working against him entering the game. The sixth-round draft pick certainly made a name for himself by showing out against a dangerous Vikings offense. Likely to become a quick fan favorite, he'll have a chance to build on his impressive debut as the Bears just signed him from the practice squad to the active roster.