The Bears have invested a lot of time and effort into 22-year-old hometown tight end Cole Kmet. It began to pay dividends last season. Kmet finished second on the team in receptions and receiving yards behind only wide receiver Darnell Mooney.
Meanwhile, veteran Jimmy Graham – who led the 2020 Bears in receiving touchdowns – all but disappeared in 2021.
Kmet will continue to be the star of the Bears’ tight end corps moving forward. But general manager Ryan Poles will have a lot of tinkering to do to fill the remaining tight end spots.
Positives: After easing into things as a rookie in 2020, Kmet more than doubled his production in the passing game last season. He caught 60 passes for 612 yards, averaging 10.2 yards per reception. His chemistry with Justin Fields progressed nicely throughout the fall.
Kmet was the No. 2 target on the team behind Mooney. Mooney was the only player on the Bears who lined up in the slot more than Kmet, according to Rotowire. Kmet lined up next tight on 57% of snaps, in the slot 37% and wide on 6% of snaps.
Negatives: After leading the team in touchdowns in 2020, Graham fell by the wayside in 2021. He caught only 14 passes all season, including three touchdowns, for 167 receiving yards. Jesse James caught only seven passes for 62 yards and a touchdown.
Kmet showed notable improvement from his rookie season, but there remains room for growth. His 612 receiving yards ranked 12th among NFL tight ends. His 60 receptions tied for 12th among tight ends. Those are respectable numbers and more targets would help him go from good to elite. Six of the tight ends ahead of him all saw at least 100 targets (Kmet saw 93).
The biggest fault on Kmet’s 2021 resume, though, was his lack of touchdowns. He failed to score once. Graham, James and Jesper Horsted all scored touchdowns in 2021 (Horsted caught only two passes and both were touchdowns). In the modern NFL, a tight end has to be valuable in the red zone. Kmet needs to prove that he can be that matchup nightmare near the end zone.
Defining moments: Kmet played his best game of the 2021 season on Monday Night Football at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. He caught six passes that night for 87 yards and spurred the Bears in their comeback effort. Graham made a 28-yard reception that night and should’ve had a touchdown that was wiped off the board by a phantom penalty against guard James Daniels.
Contract status: Kmet is the only tight end currently under contract for next season. He has two more years remaining on his rookie deal. Graham and James will count against the Bears’ salary cap due to void years in their contracts, but they are free agents in March.
Horsted is an exclusive rights free agent (meaning he can negotiate only with the Bears), while J.P. Holtz is a restricted free agent (meaning the Bears can match an outside offer).
Grade: C+. Kmet made significant progress, but there’s still room to grow. He needs to develop a nose for the end zone. He also needs to prove he can be a third-down, go-to target. The thing that separates good tight ends from great tight ends is their reliability in key situations. When in doubt on third-and-5, the Chiefs look for Travis Kelce, the 49ers look for George Kittle, the Ravens look for Mark Andrews. Kmet needs to be that for the Bears.
The plan: Kmet is still going to be the No. 1 tight end and should be on the field for most offensive snaps. The Bears will need more depth at the position. They can probably find a cheaper option than Graham, whose two-year deal in 2020 cost the team $16 million. If they really do believe that Kmet can be the go-to guy at the position, this might be one of the positions where they go cheap in the hopes that Kmet can remain healthy. They need depth, but they don’t necessarily need to spend big on a free agent. Look for the Bears to sign and/or draft depth at tight end to supplement Kmet.
Source: The Daily Chronicle