There are a few positions that might lack clarity up to the 2021 NFL Draft, even through the NFL Combine. Cornerback is one of those positions. With uncertainty surrounding the class’ top talents, and with middling depth behind them, teams will be lining up to claim their favorite players before it’s too late. Taking this into account, how does Oregon cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. project to the 2021 NFL Draft? Can he be the gem that redeems the class?
Thomas Graham Jr. 2021 NFL Draft Profile
Weight: 196 pounds
Current Year: Senior
High-profile high school recruits tend to have some security in the draft, even if they don’t produce as expected in the NFL. There’s a general belief that these players have untapped potential. If nothing else, Thomas Graham Jr. can benefit from his recruiting history.
Graham was a high four-star prospect out of Rancho Cucamonga, California. Rated as the 49th-overall player in the 2017 recruiting class, Graham was the sixth-best player at his position and the eighth-best player in the state of California. With a 4.52 40-yard dash, a 3.96 short shuttle, and a 36.5-inch vertical on record, Graham boasted inspiring athletic traits for his age. He also had a solid production record, with 212 tackles, four interceptions, and 24 pass breakups in four varsity seasons.
Graham had offers from dozens of schools. Notably, Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, LSU, and USC all extended offers. Graham could have stayed in-state and played 30 minutes from his home town. But instead, he went to the Pacific Northwest to sign with the Oregon Ducks.
Thomas Graham Jr.’s career as an Oregon cornerback
Graham joined the Ducks along with fellow four-star prospect Deommodore Lenoir, who also hailed from the Los Angeles area. Both players quickly earned regular roles on the Oregon defense, but Graham was the more heralded of the two, and he became a starter almost immediately.
In his true freshman season, Graham started 12 of 13 games, logging three interceptions and four pass deflections. Two of those interceptions came in Graham’s first career start against Nebraska. Graham’s 2017 season confirmed his natural talent, but most of his success at the college football level would come through 2018 and 2019.
Through that two-year stretch, Graham was arguably the most productive cornerback in the nation.
In 2018, the true sophomore logged three interceptions and 18 pass deflections, earning All-Pac-12 second-team honors from AP. In 2019, Graham followed up his career year with another tremendous campaign, this time adding two interceptions and 10 deflections to his total. He also tacked on 5.0 tackles for loss and a forced fumble, earning honorable mention all-conference honors from the coaches.
He ended what would be his last season on a high note, notching an interception in a Rose Bowl victory against Wisconsin.
Thomas Graham’s decision to opt out in 2020 and declare
Thomas Graham could have declared for the 2020 NFL Draft but opted to stay in college and prepare for his senior season instead. His plans changed, however, when the Pac 12 initially canceled its 2020 football season. Upon hearing the news, the Oregon cornerback declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, leaving the following statement: “I was excited to finish what we started — but due to the cancellation of this season, I have decided to forgo my final year of eligibility and declare for the 2021 NFL Draft.”
When the Pac 12 later reversed course, Graham did not opt back in. Graham would have entered the 2020 season with the most career pass deflections among active players. Even after sitting out the year, he still ranks highly as one of college football’s most productive defensive backs. However, for all his success and steadiness, there’s a difference between production and projection. Does Graham have what it takes to produce in the NFL?
Analyzing Thomas Graham Jr.’s 2021 NFL Draft profile
Interestingly enough, for all of his natural talent and production, Graham wasn’t a consensus top cornerback prospect heading into 2020. There seem to be differing opinions regarding his NFL upside. I’m of the mind that he can be a solid NFL starter in the right scheme, but he will need to clean some things up if he wants to maintain that role long-term.
Graham’s physique under the microscope
Graham’s athletic profile is somewhat polarizing. He doesn’t have top-end speed, as faster receivers often start to gain ground on him vertically. He’s also not the most explosive player. He has sufficient short-area burst, but he’s not closing gaps in the blink of an eye.
What Graham does have going for him are his hips. I was quite impressed by his hip fluidity. He flips his hips with ease when matching vertically, and when he has a chance to control the rep in press coverage, he can match guys stride for stride.
Another impressive thing about Graham’s hip fluidity was his timing. Graham has good-not-great explosiveness, but he makes up for what he lacks with his sharp reaction quickness off the line. We see shades of this reaction quickness and instinct in other parts of his game as well. Graham is good in zone coverage. He has a working understanding of how route combinations can deceive cornerbacks, and he displays a good feel for spacing in situations where he’s split between receivers.
Graham’s physicality and fluidity allow him to maintain proximity to the catch point on most snaps, and he’s quite good there as well. As evidenced by his eight career interceptions and 32 career pass deflections, he’s proactive at the catch point.
What are the issues with Thomas Graham’s profile?
Graham has many solid traits, but there are some issues to be aware of, including issues unrelated to his athletic profile. Graham is noticeably susceptible to in-breaking routes like pivots and posts. When he initially flips his hips, he has a habit to start tracking vertically and turn toward the sideline.
Receivers have taken advantage of this on occasion. When receivers break inside in these situations, Graham can be late to react, and by the time he changes direction, there’s already a sizable gap for the receiver to work with.
Additionally, Graham needs to be on top of his game mentally. While he may test better than expected at the NFL Combine, he’s still not a burner when it comes to speed. Timing and leverage are especially important for Graham, and sometimes he gives up the latter when his direction changes lack the necessary pace and pinch.
Nevertheless, Graham has enough athleticism to roam and react well in zone coverage. He also has the willingness to initiate contact that you like to see from cornerbacks in press coverage. And to top things off, he’s also fairly solid as a run defender. There’s a degree of awareness with Graham. While prospects can always use more polish, the Oregon cornerback is well on his way.
Thomas Graham Jr.’s best fits in the 2021 NFL Draft
Thomas Graham Jr. isn’t in the draft’s top echelon, but in the middle tier, he’s one of the more appealing prospects. He’s an instinctive, proactive cornerback with decent athleticism and versatility. His athletic ceiling likely relegates him to Round 3 at best, with early-to-mid Day 3 also serving as a possibility. However, if a team likes him enough, they could take him in Round 2. In certain schemes, the Oregon cornerback could be a quality starter relatively early in his career.
For Graham, teams like the 49ers, Seahawks, Panthers, and Bills appear to be solid fits. However, he’s a near-universal fit in the middle rounds as quality depth with starting potential. Even if he doesn’t go to a team where he can start and flourish, his instincts and ball production could enable him to capitalize on any opportunities he comes across.
Graham doesn’t have the upside that other cornerbacks like Patrick Surtain II and Caleb Farley have. But Graham does have a relatively high floor, and in schemes that use more zone coverage and press-man alignments, he can outperform his draft stock and carve out a long-term role.