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Bears training camp preview: Tight ends


The following is the fourth of nine position previews in advance of training camp.

When general manager Ryan Pace spoke to the media at the NFL Combine in February, he was very transparent about the Bears' desire to upgrade the tight end position during the offseason.

"We're looking at it in free agency and the draft," Pace said at the time. "That's an area of focus for us. I don't think that's a secret. This offense, a lot of it goes through the tight end. We're exploring every avenue."

The Bears executed their plan by signing veteran free agent Jimmy Graham in March and spending their top draft pick, No. 43 in the second round, on Notre Dame's Cole Kmet in April.

Graham has appeared in 153 NFL games with 111 starts over 10 seasons with the Saints (2010-14), Seahawks (2015-17) and Packers (2018-19), catching 649 passes for 7,883 yards and 74 touchdowns.

Since Graham entered the league, his games played and receiving yards are the most among NFL tight ends, while his receptions and touchdown catches both rank second. The 6-7, 265-pounder is fourth in NFL history among tight ends in TD catches and is third in touchdown receptions among all players since he entered the league.

Graham has been selected to five Pro Bowls, most recently in 2017. He's the all-time leading receiver for both the Saints and Seahawks among tight ends in receptions, yards and touchdowns.

A native of Goldsboro, N.C., Graham was selected by the Saints in the third round of the 2010 draft (95th overall). At the time, Pace served as New Orleans' director of pro scouting.

"I think it's a good example where we are all connected to a vision with a player on our team," Pace said after the Bears signed Graham. "You start with the physical evaluation on the player. He's a guy we know well. But then you have to fit with our offensive scheme.

"And I just think there are a lot of discussions on how to maximize Jimmy Graham in this offense, and that's with [coach] Matt [Nagy] and all of our offensive coaches and our scouts. We're all really excited about him being a Bear and how we are going to maximize him."

Graham blossomed into a star in his second NFL season with the Saints in 2011, earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl after catching 99 passes for 1,310 yards and 11 touchdowns. In four seasons from 2011-14, he averaged 89 receptions, 1,099 yards and 11.5 TDs per year.

Although Graham's output declined the past two seasons with the Packers, Nagy is confident the 33-year-old can thrive at a vital position in the Bears offense.

"We all saw a lot of the same things," Nagy said in April. "And what was exciting is when you look at this, you have to be able to look at … how could he or how does he fit into what you want to do? There's a lot more to that than just looking at numbers, the stats that you see and where he's at.

"He's had a hell of a career, and with that he's also grown older. But at the same time, when you look at the stuff that he's doing maybe when he's not catching the football, or maybe when he's not making a block, you see him within the play doing something that you like and then you visualize that with what you can do with him and what conceptually what you do and how it fits, and that's the exciting part.

"When you talk to him as well you understand the knowledge that he has for the game. He's very, very motivated right now, which I love, and so it's just a fit for us of a big-sized, 6-6 playmaker that you can get some mismatches with. And I know me personally I'm very, very looking forward to being able to put him in some great situations."

Graham has been very durable throughout his NFL career, playing in 15 or 16 games in nine of his 10 years in the league. He has appeared in all 16 contests seven times, including each of the past four seasons. He hasn't missed a game since 2015 when he sat out the final five contests with a knee injury.

Kmet a classic 'Y' tight end with size and athleticism

An avid Bears fan who grew up in Lake Barrington, Kmet starred in football and baseball at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights. His father, Frank, was a lineman on the Bears practice squad in 1993 who also hails from the Chicago area, attending Hersey High School in Arlington Heights.

The Bears rookie tight end was a three-year contributor at Notre Dame. He emerged as a playmaker last season, establishing career highs in all receiving categories with 60 receptions, 691 yards and six touchdowns despite missing the first three games with a broken collarbone.

"This is really your classic 'Y' tight end, with the prototypical size and just the athleticism we look for in the position," Pace said after the Bears drafted Kmet. "He's a big target, natural hands. He's really tough after the catch.

"He really has the strength and temperament we want in the run game. And really we feel his blocking is still improving, so there's a lot of upside in that area. Really with Cole splitting time between baseball and football early in his college career, he's still a young player with a lot of upside."

With the Bears conducting their offseason program entirely on a virtual basis due to the coronavirus, it was imperative for rookies to gain a firm grasp of the scheme so they can hit the ground running when they're permitted to return to the practice field in training camp. Kmet excelled in that endeavor, impressing his coaches.

"Some of the advice that was given to these young players is to understand your playbook in 2020 is going to be the most important thing you can do," Nagy said in June.

"This kid has that. I will guarantee you, I'll put it out there: He will know this playbook inside out. That's not going to be the issue. What he's going to have to grow with is understanding the defenses in the NFL, understanding how strong a defensive end is that he's going to have to block as a nine-technique, or a seven-I technique on a blast play to the outside. It's different, what the speed's like, when the ball comes on you, when the coverage changes. And he'll do that because he has the 'want.'"

New Bears tight ends coach Clancy Barone is excited about working with Kmet.

"He's very athletic," Barone said. "He's a big guy. Has great length. He's got good speed. He's got great body control and he goes up and makes hard catches look routine. And there's times where maybe the ball wasn't on his body, but he has great length and can pivot and make the hard catch seem easy. I see him as a blocker, a guy who is certainly willing. And I think blocking, for a tight end, it's being willing and it's a mindset. And he has both of those. I see a very high ceiling for Cole Kmet."

Harris reunites with Nagy in joining Bears

Even before the Bears landed Graham and Kmet, they signed veteran tight end Demetrius Harris in February.

Harris has appeared in 86 NFL games with 39 starts in six seasons with the Chiefs (2014-18) and Browns (2019), catching 72 passes for 754 yards and nine touchdowns.

The 6-7, 230-pounder entered the league with the Chiefs in 2013 as an undrafted free agent after playing basketball at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a college that does not have a football team.

Harris spent his first four years in Kansas City working with Nagy, who served as Chiefs quarterbacks coach from 2013-15 and offensive coordinator in 2016-17.

After spending his rookie year on Kansas City's practice squad in 2013, Harris played in eight games in 2014 before a broken foot ended his season. He has since appeared in at least 15 contests each of the last five years.

Last season with the Browns, Harris caught 15 passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns while playing in 15 games with six starts.

The Bears are hopeful that the acquisitions of Graham, Kmet and Harris will greatly improve what was a need position. Last season their tight ends combined to produce just 46 receptions for 416 yards and two touchdowns.

It was the first time since 1970 the Bears did not have a tight end compile at least 100 receiving yards in a season. It certainly didn't help that the top three players on the depth chart—Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen and Ben Braunecker—all were placed on injured reserve.

The Bears currently have nine tight ends on their roster, even after releasing Burton and Dax Raymond during the offseason. They include Shaheen, Braunecker, J.P. Holtz, Jesper Horsted, Eric Saubert and undrafted rookie Darion Clark.