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.” 

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

10-17mitchtrubisky.jpg
USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.

Subscribe:

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.