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9 players to watch in 2021: Cole Kmet


The following is the second of nine stories featuring an ascending young Bears player heading into the 2021 season:

Cole Kmet, tight end

How he was acquired

The Bears selected Kmet with the 43rd pick in the 2020 draft. The second-round pick initially belonged to the Las Vegas Raiders and came to the Bears via the Khalil Mack trade in 2018.

Now that all picks involved in the blockbuster trade have been used, the trade became a seven-player swap in which the Bears received Mack, Kmet and offensive lineman Arlington Hambright. The Raiders received running back Josh Jacobs, receiver Bryan Edwards and cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Blessuan Austin.

As the team's highest selection in two years, Kmet was an ideal bet for a de facto first-round pick. Like fellow second-round pick Jaylon Johnson, Kmet left college after only three years. In an alternate reality, both players would likely be picked higher in the upcoming draft if they had returned to their respective colleges.

Kmet came out of Notre Dame highly regarded for his athleticism. Among other tight ends at the combine, Kmet came out as one of the biggest and strongest. He also posted a position-best 37.0" in the vertical jump.

"This is really your classic 'Y' tight end," said general manager Ryan Pace, "with prototypical size [6-6, 262] and the athleticism we look for in the position. He's a big target, with natural hands. He's really tough after the catch. And he really has the strength and temperament we want in the run game. We feel his blocking is still improving, so there's a lot of upside in that area."

Prior to 2020 season

In 2017, leading recruiting services and both ranked Kmet as the third overall prospect in the state of Illinois. Coming out of St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, Kmet committed to play baseball and football at Notre Dame.

"He's a once in a lifetime player," said St. Viator baseball coach Mike Manno during Kmet's senior season. "And I'm not talking about just being an athlete. He's such a unique kid. He's well beyond his years. Tremendous leadership qualities. Has a great sense of selflessness with other people."

In his first year in South Bend, Kmet had more success on the diamond than on the gridiron. Kmet recorded eight saves pitching out of the bullpen while recording only two catches for 14 yards.

Kmet's sophomore year saw more opportunities on the football field. Kmet finished the season with 15 catches for 162 yards. Through two seasons, Kmet had yet to score a touchdown for the Fighting Irish and seemed an unlikely candidate to leave early.

However, Kmet broke out in 2019, recording 43 catches for 515 yards and six touchdowns and averaging 12.0 yards per reception. After initially planning to return for his senior season, Kmet declared for the draft on Jan. 2, 2020 and immediately became the consensus top tight end in the draft.

"I've had a number of tight ends that are doing exceedingly well and have been All-Pros in the NFL," said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. "Cole Kmet will be in line with all those guys."

2020 Season

Kmet started the season behind Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris on the depth chart. The coaching staff praised his effort but cited the truncated offseason for his lack of early playing time.

Still, coaches raved about his potential.

"If you put all that in there together," said tight ends coach Clancy Barone in August, "I would say Cole is on schedule, if not maybe a tick ahead of schedule. Not to make it sound too grand, but I have zero concerns about Cole Kmet. I really do."

In the season's first seven games, Kmet generally played between 31 and 35 percent of offensive plays. During this stretch, he was targeted only seven times, recording five catches for 87 yards.

Kmet's first career touchdown reception came in the first quarter of the Bears' 23-16 Week 6 win over the Carolina Panthers.

"It's not easy," said coach Matt Nagy at the time. "Your first NFL game, your second NFL game, your third. And now here we are, and we've played seven games. When you think about it, you look down seven years from now when he's having an unbelievable career, you're gonna think, 'Man, we were getting that antsy at seven games into his first year.'"

In Weeks 8 and 9, Kmet saw an uptick in playing time as he began to pull more time away from Harris. He played on 43 and 47 percent of offensive plays, respectively, in those two contests. However, this didn't translate to an uptick in production. Kmet recorded only one catch for two yards during that period.

"The ball can only go to so many people on each play," said offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. "I don't think it's a lack of focus or lack of trust from the game plan. I just think that the way some of it has come out on game day, if there were things he was prepared for, or caught in practice, [it] just didn't come out."

Around this time, with the Bears halfway through a six-game losing streak, the coaching staff began to use Kmet as their primary tight end. Kmet played in 70 percent of plays against the Minnesota Vikings before the bye week and 79 percent against the Green Bay Packers in Week 12.

Mitchell Trubisky's return as starting quarterback marked a decisive uptick in Kmet's role in the offense. In the final five games of the regular season, Kmet recorded 20 catches for 139 yards and a touchdown.

Kmet finished the season with 28 catches for 243 yards and two touchdowns, leading rookie tight ends in catches and yards and finishing second in touchdowns. He also finished playing a bigger role in the Bears offense than future Hall of Famer Graham.

"Now that Cole has had more experience," said Nagy, "he knows what he is doing. It's just natural, and he's eased into it. Now it's like in cruise control where we can just go and play ball. Jimmy has been the ultimate pro in all of this. And so whether it's two tight ends, three tight ends, one tight end, I think all of us are going to see more of Cole Kmet, and everyone is happy about that."