Shaw Local is counting down the top 25 most important Bears for the 2022 season.
What makes one player more important than another? That’s subjective, of course. But for our purposes it comes down to this: Are the Bears worse off if this player can’t play? Does this player have untapped potential or past greatness to live up to? Is his story going to be one fans follow closely this season?
For example, Justin Fields might not be the best player on the Bears in 2022 [or maybe he will be], but he certainly is among the most important.
No. 18 Thomas Graham Jr.
NFL experience: Second season
Last year’s ranking: Missed top 25
Looking back: When the Bears drafted cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. with a sixth-round pick in 2021, the California native hadn’t played a game in more than a year. He opted out of his final year of college football in 2020 at Oregon. Following training camp in 2021, the Bears released Graham but signed him to the practice squad, stashing him away for the future. Graham bided his time until an opportunity arose in December when much of the Bears’ secondary came down with COVID-19.
Graham started a Dec. 20 game against the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field and had three passes defended and seven combined tackles in his NFL debut. It was a coming out party for the rookie. He kept his spot on the active roster and continued to see playing time the remainder of the season. In all, he appeared in four games last season, making just one start.
Looking forward: Graham has spent much of his time this offseason working on his game at the nickel cornerback spot. During the spring, he met with assistant defensive backs coach David Overstreet II every morning to study the intricacies of the position. Over the offseason, the Bears signed former Ravens nickel corner Tavon Young, and the general assumption was that Young, 28, would be the front-runner for the nickel job. Young has experience, but has dealt with injuries over the years. All indications during minicamp and OTAs pointed toward Graham making a serious push for the nickel position.
Graham might have a chance to carve out a real role for himself as the Bears’ fifth defensive back this season. With Jaylon Johnson and Kyler Gordon likely commanding the starting roles at boundary corner, the nickel might be Graham’s best chance to earn playing time.
“Very smart player,” defensive backs coach James Rowe said of Graham. “He is able to handle the workload outside and inside. He is intent on being good, and we love what we see from him so far.”