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Graham 'ready to go ball' as Bears rookie

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When Thomas Graham Jr. was still on the board at the beginning of the sixth round of the NFL Draft, the cornerback from Oregon switched his television to another channel.

"I did get away from the TV after the fifth round," said Graham, who was watching the draft at an Airbnb in Newport Beach, Calif. "My parents called me and they just said, 'We believe in you just as much as you believe in yourself. Your name is going to get called. When it is, take advantage of that opportunity.'"

Graham's parents were correct. And while it took longer than they and their son anticipated, the 21-year-old was eventually selected by the Bears with the final pick in the sixth round.

Graham was rated as the 76th best player in the draft by Pro Football Focus, but he wasn't chosen until No. 228.

"I personally don't really know what made me drop or even if I was actually rated that high," Graham said. "But all that did was kind of put a chip on my shoulder—and I've always played with a chip on my shoulder. I've always been the underdog.

"I'm just going out there ready to play, ready to go ball and do things that I've always done my whole life, which is just go out there and make my family proud."

One reason Graham may have fallen in the draft is that he opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Prior to that, however, he had displayed play-making ability and excellent ball skills for the Ducks. Appearing in 40 games over three seasons, Graham registered 183 tackles, eight interceptions, 10.5 tackles-for-loss and 32 pass breakups.

Before opting out, the 5-11, 197-pounder would have entered his senior season as the FBS leader in pass breakups and was tied for seventh among active FBS players in interceptions.

Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend acknowledged that Graham will have to make up for the practice and game reps he missed last season. But Townsend likes the traits the young cornerback possesses. 

"In our game and most games that you play, reps mean something," Townsend said. "But the things that you like about him are how consistent he is. He is a playmaker. He can see the ball in the air, he can find it, track it."

Graham returned to football in January when he participated in the Senior Bowl. He took part in last weekend's rookie minicamp at Halas Hall and will battle for a roster spot in training camp and the preseason. Heading into the 2021 season, the Bears are looking to replace departed starting cornerback Kyle Fuller and veteran nickel back Buster Skrine.

"They just told me that they want me to come in here and learn the playbook, and be able to play both corner and nickel," Graham said. "They told me, 'Just go out there and compete, do as best as you can,' and that's what I'm going to do. I want to go out there and start, but nothing is given I this league. You have to go take it. You have to earn it."

Although Graham is new to the Bears, he has some familiarity with their defense because it's similar to the scheme that Oregon operated under coordinator Jim Leavitt in 2017-18.

"[First-year Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai] comes from the same tree as my first defensive coordinator in college, so I spent two years in that defense," Graham said. "It's [not] like I'm coming into an organization that runs a completely different defense that I've never seen before. I've seen it. It's just different calls, different checks, different meanings for certain things, but overall the same concept."

Take an exclusive off-the-field look at Halas Hall during rookie minicamp as players arrive, get fitted for equipment, speak with the media and make their way around the Bears' practice facility.

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