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How chats with GM Ryan Pace helped rookie Thomas Graham find his way

In his debut Monday against the Vikings, Graham looked like he belonged. He led the Bears with three pass breakups and was third on the team with seven tackles.

“It’s just a simple conversation — going up to him like, ‘What do you think I can work on now?’” Bears cornerback Thomas Graham said of his talks with GM Ryan Pace.
“It’s just a simple conversation — going up to him like, ‘What do you think I can work on now?’” Bears cornerback Thomas Graham said of his talks with GM Ryan Pace.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Time

Thomas Graham couldn’t crack the Bears’ worst position group.

As their cornerbacks — everyone but standout Jaylon Johnson — struggled week after week, the sixth-round rookie stayed stuck on the practice squad, available for any NFL team to try to claim him.

The Bears cut Graham at the end of training camp before putting him on the practice squad. While they knew it would take a while for him to get up to speed — he sat out his last season at Oregon for coronavirus concerns — he still qualified as a disappointment. The 22-year-old had lost confidence.

“After I got the call on cut day, I had a lot of self-doubt,” he said this week.

He felt lost — “At first I didn’t kind of know where to start,” he said — but eventually accepted what was happening. That was the first step toward trying to improve.

“It kind of just starts with a reality check,” he said. “You have to start with yourself before you can go anywhere else. I was just like, ‘Why am I not on the field and what am I not doing to be able to put myself in position to move up?’ ”

One day after practice, he asked the man who drafted him that exact question.

“What do I need to do to make sure I can live my dream and be here?” Graham asked general manager Ryan Pace.

Pace chatted with him and made an appointment to meet in his office the next day. They have checked in four or five times this season. Pace texts Graham and sends video files to his tablet with pointers.

“It’s just a simple conversation — going up to him like, ‘What do you think I can work on now?’ ” Graham said. “At first it just started with on-the-field. And then it was, ‘All right, show your coaches that you know the defense. And I think they’ll be confident in you if you get your opportunity.’ ”

Graham feels as if he has improved since the bye week in early November. Still, it took an act of God — the entire starting defensive backfield being completely wiped out by the coronavirus — for the Bears to promote him from the practice squad.

In his debut against the Vikings, he looked as if he belonged. He led the Bears with three passes defended and was third on the team with seven tackles. Defensive coordinator Sean Desai said Graham played with the proper leverages — knowing where he had help in coverage — and that allowed his talent to show.

“He was aggressive,” coach Matt Nagy said. “He did a great job of stepping up to the moment.

“You root for those types of stories, and he has certainly helped himself out with being able to play more.”

If Graham is this good, the question remains: How did the Bears not recognize that sooner? They haven’t had a serviceable second or third cornerback on their active roster all season.

If Monday was a one-time-only event, the Bears need to find out. They should give him every opportunity to play the rest of the season, since the final three games are about building for the future. Even when his teammates are healthy, Graham needs to be on the field — in the slot or opposite Johnson.

Graham built back his confidence by improving in practice the last five weeks. A few good game showings would allow that confidence to build.

“I have a lot to prove and I have a lot to do,” he said. “But that’s the mindset. I don’t train and I do anything to be average or to be mediocre. I wanna be the best I can -possibly do.

“It’s a high standard I set for myself. But — do you feel me? — if I shoot for the stars I might land on the moon.”