Bears

'Last Chance U' star John Franklin III keeps fighting as he looks to make Bears as a defensive back

'Last Chance U' star John Franklin III keeps fighting as he looks to make Bears as a defensive back

Most of the undrafted free agents and rookie minicamp tryout guys floating around the NFL right now are anonymous faces in large crowds of players. Then there’s John Franklin III.

“Yeah, even the guys on the team come up to me when I walk around and are like, you were on that show,” Franklin said. “I hear that literally two or three times a day, literally every day.”

That show is “Last Chance U,” the Netflix documentary about East Mississippi Community College's football team on which Franklin starred in 2016. Franklin transferred to EMCC from Florida State after being buried on the Seminoles’ depth chart; after one season largely spent as a backup behind Wyatt Roberts under coach Buddy Stephens in Scooba, Miss., Franklin transferred to Auburn. He played as a backup quarterback there in 2016, then transferred to Florida Atlantic and played wide receiver in 2017. 

Franklin was not picked in April’s NFL Draft but tried out at the Seattle Seahawks’ rookie minicamp as a defensive back. He didn’t earn a contract there, so he tried out again last weekend, also as a defensive back, at the Bears’ rookie minicamp. On Sunday, he signed a contract with the Bears.

And on Wednesday, he and his jovial, positive personality spent a few moments expounding on how he wound up in Chicago in a “last chance camp” of sorts. 

“I’m a fighter, I’m a competitor and I’m a winner so that alone helps, and I got a chance to show that on the show,” Franklin said. 

We’ll get into Franklin’s chances later of actually sticking on an NFL roster while learning an entirely new position on an unfamiliar side of the ball. But Franklin figured out — in front of the cameras for the whole world to see — while at EMCC that he had to have a certain persistence and mental toughness if he wanted to stick with football. 

“From when I was a little kid, I’ve always been very persistent,” Franklin said. “If there was something I really wanted, I always made sure I did whatever I had to do to get it. And that’s going back from being, like, four years old — if I wanted a piece of candy, I’m gonna get my piece of candy one way or another, you know what I’m saying?” 

But Franklin admitted he considered giving up football while at EMCC, and said the year that was so thoroughly documented on “Last Chance U” was a “low point” in his life. 

“That was where I actually grew the most, in that low point,” Franklin said. “I kind of got myself together and was like, bro, you can do this, you wouldn’t be in this position if you couldn’t. And then as I look back on my journey, I’m like man, God’s really faithful and really good because every time a door closes, another one opens right after. It doesn’t happen like that all the time for everybody, but it happened for me. And I’m truly blessed to have that, be chosen to do that.”

Franklin didn’t produce much as a wide receiver last year, catching seven passes for 95 yards, but his off-the-charts athleticism still showed up with 659 yards on 62 carries over 23 games at Auburn and FAU (10.6 yards per carry). Franklin claimed he ran a 4.19 second 40-yard dash in February, and while he ran an official 4.44 second 40-yard dash at the National Scouting Combine (which is not the NFL Combine), the point is this: He’s fast.

And, as the Bears see it, fast enough to be given a shot as a cornerback. 

So that brings us back to this question: What chance does Franklin actually have of making an NFL roster or practice squad, specifically with the Bears?

“It’s definitely tough running forward for most of your life and now you’re running backwards,” Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “It’s definitely tough. (Defensive backs coach) Ed Donatell is great with details and great at coaching guys. I think this is the best spot for him to be because of the coaching.”

Franklin is confident he can make the switch because he’s not only played wide receiver, but also quarterback, giving him a good knowledge of what opposing players will try to do to him as a defensive back. But he’s not yet at the point where that knowledge will be an advantage, because he’s in such a nascent stage of his development as a defensive player. 

“Rome wasn’t built in one day,” Franklin said. “It’s like learning a new language for me. Learning how to run backwards instead of forwards, that’s different. I just take it day by day and I really try to focus on one thing and get better at that, and then once I get better at it I can move on to the next thing.” 

Franklin’s goal is to make the Bears’ 53-man roster out of training camp, which may seem lofty — but this is a guy whose goal was to win the Heisman Trophy in college, whether he was at Florida State, Auburn or FAU. So maybe don’t be quick to count out the “Last Chance U” guy who’s on his third position in the last three years. 

“If your goals aren’t big enough to where it’s not something to strive for, then what are you doing,” Franklin said. “You know what I’m saying? That’s something to push forward to. Nobody can ever have higher expectations for me than I have for myself. I always believe that if you don’t believe in yourself, then nobody should believe in you.” 

Roquan Smith helps shear a sheep at Bears community event

Roquan Smith helps shear a sheep at Bears community event

Roquan Smith has more sheared sheep than tackles on his stat sheet as a pro football player.

Smith and several other Bears rookies participated in a hands-on community event at Lambs Farm in Libertyville, Illinois on Monday where he assisted farm staff with the sheep's grooming. Smith said it was a first for him despite growing up around animals. 

"It's like on the norm for me though, playing linebacker you're in the trenches," Smith said of the experience.

"Shaving a sheep, I never really envisioned myself doing something like that," Smith said via ChicagoBears.com. "I was around animals [growing up], but it was more so cows and goats here and there and dogs and cats. I've petted a sheep before, but never actually flipped one and shaved one."

Bears rookies got up close and personal with more than just sheep.

Smith was selected with the eighth overall pick in April's draft and will assume a starting role opposite Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker this season. Here's to hoping he can wrangle opposing ball-carriers like a sheep waiting to be sheared.

The Bears' defense is ahead of its offense, but Matt Nagy doesn't see that as a problem

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USA Today Sports Images

The Bears' defense is ahead of its offense, but Matt Nagy doesn't see that as a problem

Asking players about how the defense is “ahead” of the offense is a yearly right of passage during OTAs, sort of like how every baseball team has about half its players saying they’re in the best shape of their life during spring training. So that Vic Fangio’s defense is ahead of Matt Nagy’s offense right now isn’t surprising, and it's certainly not concerning. 

But Nagy is also working to install his offense right now during OTAs to build a foundation for training camp. So does the defense — the core of which is returning with plenty of experience in Fangio’s system — being ahead of the offense hurt those efforts?

“It’s actually good for us because we’re getting an experienced defense,” Nagy said. “My message to the team on the offensive side is just be patient and don’t get frustrated. They understand that they’re going to play a little bit faster than us right now. We’ll have some growing pains, but we’ll get back to square one in training camp.”

We’ll have a chance to hear from the Bears’ offensive players following Wednesday’s practice, but for now, the guys on Fangio’s defense have come away impressed with that Nagy’s offense can be. 

“The offense is a lot … just very tough,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “They’re moving well. They’re faster. They’re throwing a lot of different looks at us and that’s just Nagy’s offense. If I was a receiver I would love to play in this offense, just because you get to do so many different things and you get so many different plays. It just looks fun over there.”

“They’re moving together, and I like to see that,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “We’re not a bad defense. They’re practicing against us, so they’re getting better every day, and vice versa. It’s a daily grind. It’s going to be tough, but those guys, they got the right pieces. I like what I see out there. When somebody makes a play, they’re gone. Everybody can run over there. It’s the right fit for Mitch, it’s the right fit for the receivers, the running backs.”

Still, for all the praise above, the defense is “winning” more, at least as much as it can without the pads on. But the offense is still having some flashes, even as it collectively learns the terminology, concepts and formations used by Nagy. 

And that leads to a competitive atmosphere at Halas Hall, led by the Bears’ new head coach. 

“He’s an offensive coach and last year coach (John) Fox, I couldn’t really talk stuff to (him) because he’s a defensive coach and it’s like Nagy’s offense so if I get a pick or something, I mean, I like to talk stuff to him,” Amukamara said. “He’ll say something like ‘we’re coming at you 2-0.’ Stuff like that. That just brings out the competition and you always want that in your head coach.”