You might remember John Franklin III as the star-quarterback-turned-backup whose struggles at East Mississippi Community College played out on the first season of the Netflix docuseries “Last Chance U.” So when Franklin commented recently that he eventually doesn’t want to have to introduce himself to others, there was a natural follow-up question: “Don’t people know you already?”
“Yeah,” Franklin said. “I want them to remember me. Not just know me.”
Three years have passed since the self-described “low point” of Franklin’s life played out on Netflix. Since leaving EMCC, Franklin was a seldom-used quarterback at Auburn, then transferred to Florida Atlantic and played wide receiver for a year. The Bears saw potential in his size and raw speed and gave him a shot at playing cornerback a year ago. He wound up sticking on the practice squad during the second half of the season, and now has a legitimate opportunity to make the Bears’ 53-man roster in 2019.
“I feel like I have every opportunity to make this 53 and I feel like I should make the 53,” Franklin said. “And that’s my only mindset, is to make the 53.”
In the grand scope of the NFL, Franklin’s ascent has been rapid. It’s rare for a player to make the position switches Franklin has over the last two years and stick in the NFL, even on practice squads and training camp rosters. It’s an unforgiving league, one where teams value all 90 spots on their preseason rosters. Potential is one thing, but players have to prove they can reach that potential to stick on a roster.
Franklin, though, has a bigger goal in mind, one which goes beyond being one of the Bears’ 53 active players after Labor Day weekend. He had the word “legendary” tattooed on his stomach this year to serve as a constant reminder of what he aspires to be.
“I’m not trying to just be okay,” Franklin said. “… I want to be the best that ever played.”
Franklin acknowledges he has a ways to go to reach that goal, and knows it won’t happen overnight. He also has plenty to prove to make the Bears’ roster.
Franklin was beat on a couple of throws during the Bears’ preseason game against the New York Giants on Friday, including a 15-yard touchdown allowed to NFL veteran T.J. Jones. He did display good coverage in forcing an incompletion intended for Jones earlier in the game, though, which was more in line with what he did during an overall-solid training camp.
“He’s a true athlete,” cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend said. “There’s not many people who can do some of the things he can do. And if he can just continue to get some reps, continue to learn, stay hungry, he’ll be fine.”
Franklin’s athletic profile is one reason why Townsend and the Bears still believe they can mold the quarterback-turned-receiver-turned-cornerback into a legitimate NFL player. But it’s not the only one: Townsend was keen to note how coachable Franklin is, whether it’s listening to advice, asking the right questions or putting in the work.
After last season ended, Franklin said he took about a week and a half to decompress before he went back to working on his technique. He did defensive back drills five days a week at Goldfeet Global with Tevin Allen, working to get more comfortable with the position that, if all goes well for him, will be his ticket to the NFL.
“My breaks now, it’s crazy compared to last year,” Franklin said. “My posture on breaks, I used to sit back, I used to clutch and lean back. And now I’m staying low and coming out.
“… I really worked on every aspect because even though I’m still new to the position, I’ve had some success, I still feel like I have so much to learn and I still feel like I’m behind the 8-ball.”
Still, Franklin has a much better idea of what he’s doing now than he did a year ago. Getting to practice against wideouts like Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller while on the practice squad taught him a lot about his technique while giving him the satisfaction of playing a role — albeit a small one — for a playoff team. He can self-correct mistakes and expects to make plays in practices and games, rather than needing to prove to himself he could stick in coverage and defend passes.
Franklin’s shot at making the Bears’ roster, then, comes down to two factors: First, he needs to prove he’s the best option among a field of ex-undrafted players like Kevin Toliver, Michael Joseph and Clifton Duck. If that fails — in this scenario, the Bears likely carry Toliver as their primary backup outside corner, as they did last year — he’ll need to prove worthy of a roster spot based on special teams contributions and potential. That means beating out, say, a sixth defensive lineman, a seventh wide receiver or a fifth outside and/or inside linebacker.
So while Franklin aims to be legendary someday, he’s still a long shot to make the Bears’ roster. But the 24-year-old is aware of how far he’s come in a year, and believes he’ll eventually be remembered as one of the best cornerbacks to play in the NFL — not just a guy from that show you watched on Netflix.
“I want to leave a legacy when it’s all said and done,” Franklin said. “Any time somebody says my name, I want them to know that he’s a hard worker, he did it all. I think this is bigger than me. What I do here is more than me. And that’s what it’s all about, leaving a legacy here on this earth playing this game.”