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.” 

For the Bears, the 2018 rookie class is yet another cornerstone of the Matt Nagy era

For the Bears, the 2018 rookie class is yet another cornerstone of the Matt Nagy era

Depending on who you ask, one might be surprised to hear that on the NFL's best defense -- one with 4 All-Pros -- the leading tackler was rookie Roquan Smith. 

Smith, who was the Bears' first-round pick in 2018 and whose contract-holdout was the hot topic of preseason, led the team in both combined (120) and solo (89) tackles. While there's a dark corner of Bears fans who weren't happy with Smith's 2018 (and kind of aren't happy about anything ever), the 8th overall pick out of Georgia's first season was subjectively a success. 

"You know, you talk to Roquan and you can just feel him, no different than any player, just feeling comfortable in the defense," GM Ryan Pace said. "So now he's not thinking as much, he's just playing with his instincts, and he's playing fast. And you guys know Roquan. Those are his greatest strengths - his instincts and his speed. So the sky's the limit for him."

"It's just exciting to see him grow. And I think you saw a glimpse of what he's going to be, especially in the later part of the season." 

Smith may be the headliner, but don't let that undercut how productive the rest of the group was. James Daniels, Anthony Miller, and Bilal Nichols each had their moments throughout the year, showing off what looks like back-to-back stellar draft classes in Pace/Nagy era. In fact, Smith, Daniels and Nichols all made ESPN's All-Rookie team. 

"I like [the group] a lot," Matt Nagy added. "The guys that we brought in, we were talking about it a few weeks ago -- you never know how many you're going to hit on. And so and I don't know if we even truly know right now, but from what we've seen we feel really confident with that group, see a lot of high ceiling with these guys." 

Daniels, taken in the 2nd round out of Iowa, appeared in 16 games this season and was a starter in the final 10. He didn't allow a single sack all season, and according to Pro Football Focus, only allowed 20 total pressures on his 432 pass-blocking attempts. His work against Rams' All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald may be one of the more impressive performances from any Bears player on the roster all year. 

"That was one of the biggest challenges that he’s ever going to have," Nagy said the morning after the Bears' 15-6 win. "I thought his technique was really good last night. He never lunged too much, he stayed balanced. One of James’ biggest strengths is if he happens to lose a little leverage he can recover, but for the most part he was very consistent. And man, for being such a young kid, very calm, composed and that was one of the big things we talked about as a team was to stay calm and composed and next play mentality, he did that."

For Miller, who came out of Memphis with a whole bunch of Antonio Brown comparisons, being stashed behind Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton didn't stop the rookie from scoring seven touchdowns, the most for a Bears' rookie since 1983. For the year, Miller hauled in 33 receptions for 423 yards, averaging out at 12.8 yards per reception. If you don't count Kevin White and his four receptions, Miller's 12.8 YPR was good for 3rd best on the team. He also showed a commendable amount of toughness, battling through most of the season with a left shoulder that popped out on multiple occasions and will eventually need surgery. It's also worth noting that Miller is already well-liked inside of Halas Hall - it's not a coincidence that he was one of the first people Allen Robinson named when asked why someone would want to join the Bears in free agency. 

As for Nichols, the rookie out of Delaware started six games and appeared in 14, making the most of snaps leftover from Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman. He put up three sacks, two forced fumbles and 28 tackles, five of which were for a loss. Like Smith and Daniels, Nichols was consistently lauded for having a maturity beyond his age. 

"We’ve got some mature rookies," linemate Akiem Hicks said. "I noticed that from OTAs and off the top of my head, Roquan Smith and Bilal Nichols, just knowing their role and their place and trying to meet every expectation of themselves and from their peers and coaching staff and just knowing that there’s a lot to lose whenever you step on the field. They take advantage of it and so as a veteran player you look at that and you say, ‘We’ve got a great nucleus here, something that can propel us forward into the playoffs and so look at us now.'" 

The other three members of the 2018 class had quieter opening acts, though reasons to be optimistic remain. Javon Wimms put on a clinic in preseason and may be one of the more exciting Breakout Season candidates come next August. Kylie Fitts appeared in six games this season and shows fits well with what you need in a linebacker in 2019. Joel Iyiegbuniwe was a strong contributor to special teams over 16 games. 

A list of the players that Nagy and Pace have drafted together includes (but isn't limited to): Mitch Trubisky, Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen, Smith, Daniels, Miller, and Nichols. In other words, their starting QB, safety, running back, inside linebacker, offensive guard and defensive tackle. So what's behind such successful drafts? 

"I think that it's just a credit to these guys, Ryan and his guys," Nagy added. "They put in a lot of hard work and we collaborate together. And when you do that and you get guys that believe in everything, that's what happens."

"If we could go back and do it again, I'd do it again."

Hard to blame him. 

Bears lose Ed Donatell as defensive coaching staff makeover continues

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USA TODAY

Bears lose Ed Donatell as defensive coaching staff makeover continues

Ed Donatell indeed will follow Vic Fangio to Denver, with the now-former Bears defensive backs coach signing on to be the Broncos’ defensive coordinator on Tuesday.

 

 

Donatell was Fangio’s defensive backs coach from 2011-2018 with the San Francisco 49ers and Bears, and in Chicago was credited with the All-Pro development of cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson. His contract with the Bears expired after the 2018 season, so the Bears were unable to block him from interviewing for the Broncos’ defensive coordinator gig.

 

As things stand on Tuesday, only one defensive assistant from 2018 will remain with the team: Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers. Outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley took the same position under Fangio in Denver, while inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires and assistant defensive backs coach/safeties coach Roy Anderson will not return, too:

 

 

These departures aren’t surprising given Fangio said last week he hoped to bring some of his assistants from Chicago to Denver, while newly-hired defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano likely will want to bring in some of his own coaches in the coming weeks.

 

The Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs reported the Bears may consider Rob Ryan, the son of Buddy Ryan and longtime defensive coach, to replace Staley as outside linebackers coach. Ryan and Pagano worked together when Ryan was the Oakland Raiders’ defensive coordinator in the mid-2000s, and he would come with at least one player endorsement:

 

 

Meanwhile, rumors have swirled since Pagano’s hiring last Friday that he could bring Ed Reed — the sure-fire Hall of Fame safety with whom Pagano worked at the University of Miami and with the Baltimore Ravens — in as an assistant. Reed and Pagano are coaching together in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl this week in Los Angeles, with Pagano a head coach and Reed a defensive coordinator in the college showcase All-Star game.