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Kmet continuing to reward Bears following contract extension
Story by Gabby Hajduk



Cole Kmet caught the attention of Ryan Poles long before either of them represented the Chicago Bears.

When Kmet was at Notre Dame and Poles was serving as the Chiefs' Assistant Director of Player Personnel, the tight end garnered the attention of NFL scouts with his 6-6, 260-pound frame and physical style that led to 515 receiving yards and six touchdowns with the Fighting Irish in 2019. But what really drew Poles to Kmet during the 2020 NFL Draft process was the untapped potential he saw in the Chicago area native, who never had more than a year to focus solely on football.

"When we scouted him at Notre Dame, he was a part-time baseball player as well," Poles told ChicagoBears.com. "And that's why I felt like there was even more upside than what you saw on the college tape, because he was splitting his time, especially early in his career. So I knew if he spent all of his time in football, it could be something really good. And that's been proven true."

For two seasons, Poles watched from afar as Kmet was selected by the Bears in the second round of the 2020 draft and emerged as a valuable part of the offense. But just 21 months later, Poles joined Kmet in Chicago when he was hired as the team's new general manager in January 2022.

"There's a weird misconception and I hear it all the time about if a player was drafted by another GM. I've never looked — I don't think many guys do — but I've never looked at it like that. Once you come here, you're a part of this group. The cool thing is, I scouted Cole when I was in Kansas City, just like we did Jaylon Johnson. All these guys we scouted, I was fighting for those guys to be drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs.

"So I've been a huge Cole fan for a long time. And when you fight for a player as a scout, you're talking about what he's going to become and his potential. So to have the ability to be in the building and see one of my favorite players that I scouted do that is a pretty cool thing."

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While in Kansas City, Poles saw Kmet adapt to the game in his first NFL season then gain confidence in his sophomore season. With a front row seat to Kmet's third year in the league, Poles witnessed the tight end "become a pro," which meant "understanding the details of the game, how to get open, how to block, how to take care of his body, all those little things."

In evaluating Kmet's three years in the league, which were marked by consistent improvement, increased production and emerging leadership skills, Poles realized he discovered the blueprint for the type of player he wants to build around.

Poles wanted to be intentional about his first multi-year extension. As someone sitting in that seat for the first time as a general manager, Poles recognized the natural fear of extending a player who then produces less than expected. But with Kmet, Poles felt "confident we would get the same guy that he was on his rookie contract."

Signing Kmet to a four-year extension in July was first and foremost an opportunity to reward a player that embodied what it means to be a Chicago Bear and represent the NFL's charter franchise. But it was also an opportunity for Poles to set a tone in the locker room.

"I wanted that also to be a really good lesson for the rest of the team," Poles said. "Because I believe when you pay a player and do an extension, you are showing the rest of the team the blueprint to get a second contract or a third contract. I know for a fact that our entire roster can look at Cole and be like, 'okay, if I do what Cole does, then everything will take care of itself.' And that's what I wanted. And that's why we started with him."

"Whoever Cole goes up against, it’s gonna be a tough matchup." Bears safety Eddie Jackson

After inking his extension, Kmet spoke to the media and stressed that he wanted to "prove these guys right" in the 2023 season. While Kmet didn't have specific statistics in mind when voicing that, he "just wanted to be that guy that they know they can count on to execute on any given Sunday."

What ensued was a career year for Kmet, who reached career-highs in receptions (73), receiving yards (719) and catch percentage (81.1).

In each of those categories, he ranked in the top 10 among all NFL tight ends, including the top catch percentage among tight ends with at least 90 targets – higher than the Chiefs' Travis Kelce (76.9), the 49ers' George Kittle (72.2) and the Lions' Sam LaPorta (71.7).

"I think in a sense I did [prove them right]," Kmet told ChicagoBears.com. "I think I took another step forward this year. I think that's all you can do as a player every year is just keep taking steps forward. And I felt like I built upon what I did the year prior and was able to take another step in my game, and I think that was able to show on the field. So I was definitely proud of what I was able to do. But you still look at it and there's still a lot of things where you can grow and get better at as well."

Kmet's Year 4 jump was recognized all throughout the Bears locker room, including by Eddie Jackson, the veteran safety who is one of the few players on the roster who has watched Kmet transform from a rookie trying to find his way to a top playmaker on offense.

Jackson was often matched up with Kmet in training camp workouts, in-season practices and pregame warmup drills. This season, he noticed a sizable improvement in his teammate's ball skills.

"He's a big dude," Jackson said. "He's strong so it's kind of tough to fight with that because you don't want to get a penalty — a pass interference or a holding. So you just gotta play your technique, but it's definitely hard. Whoever Cole goes up against, it's gonna be a tough matchup because he learned how to use his body and that weight very, very well. He's got good strong hands and his ball skills are tremendous."

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Kmet also caught six touchdown passes in 2023, which tied for second among tight ends across the NFL. His scores ranged from working his way to a wide open spot in the end zone versus the Broncos Oct. 1 to toe-tapping in the back corner of the end zone against the Browns Dec. 17. Kmet also put together a two-touchdown performance against the Saints Nov. 5, which impressed 18-year pro and fellow tight end Marcedes Lewis.

In the first quarter with backup quarterback Tyson Bagent under center, Kmet leapt high into the air to snatch the ball away from Pro Bowl safety Tyron Mathieu, who was tight in coverage.

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"You know how they do the percentages of catchability? That had to be like under 10%," Lewis said. "Just the way — it was a beautiful ball — but the way his body positioning [was]. Tyron Mathieu was going for the ball and it looked like if Cole does anything else, Tyron either picks it off or bats it down. Just the concentration on being able to catch that ball, using his body to kind of shield him off, but having strong hands all the way to the tuck, I mean, you can't teach that."

In previous seasons, Kmet may not have made that catch look so seamless, but making those types of plays weighed on his mind last offseason.

Learning how to correctly use his physicality, come down with 50/50 balls and challenge the defense to make mistakes all coincided with Kmet finding a heightened sense of confidence in 2023.

"I think my confidence as a player has gone up in those type of situations," Kmet said. "Those are all confidence things, I think. When you know what you're doing and you have confidence in your ability and all those things, you're coming down and making those type of plays.

"Being a big body tight end and being able to do those type of things is obviously what they want me to do here and what the team needs me to do."

While Kmet's pure talent on the field allowed him to be the Bears' second-leading receiver in 2023, his dependability as a player, teammate and leader also served a key role in his success this season.

Kmet has played in every game in his career, making him only one of 28 NFL players to have not missed a game in the last four seasons. That streak holds more significance to Kmet and his teammates than any other career high or ranking.

"I think it sets an example in the locker room as to what's expected of everybody," Kmet said. "You can't just take games off because you're not feeling it, and I think it pushes guys around you to really push to play every week. No one's feeling 100%, especially late in the season, but it's important to be out there and that's important to the organization to have the guys that, quite frankly, they're paying to be out there, to be out on the field. I take a lot of pride in trying to get to get ready for Sunday and doing everything I can to be there for the team in whatever capacity they need me for."

That maturity and stability Kmet provides is something that immediately stood out to Lewis after he signed with the Bears in training camp. The veteran has spent time around hundreds of players throughout his NFL career and immediately recognized Kmet possessed special qualities, including intelligence, toughness and a desire to be great.

What impressed Lewis even more was Kmet's reaction after receiving his first extension. While it can often be difficult for a player to not let human nature take over and unintentionally relax or take a break after signing a new contract, Lewis realized that "definitely was not part of [Kmet's] makeup." Instead, he saw his counterpart raise the bar.

"I just think for him, mentally he's just operating from a different space than most guys are at his age," Lewis said. "So I think this right here is just the tip of the iceberg for him. I don't see why he can't play 10 more years if he wanted to. He's just one of those guys and one of those guys that you want to build around. Really good in the locker room, treats people how you want to be treated."

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While Lewis met Kmet four years into his NFL journey, Jackson can firmly attest to the tight end's reliability from Day 1.

Despite being in separate meetings or opposite sides of the field and locker room, Jackson has always appreciated the attitude and work ethic Kmet brings to Halas Hall each day, adding: "He means a lot, man. Without Cole, it would be kind of crazy in here, honestly."

"He doesn't settle," Jackson said. "He doesn't get complacent. He always tries to perfect his craft. You always see him working. I feel like I've never been here and haven't seen Cole in the weight room on a day he wasn't supposed to be working out. Him just doing stuff like that, film study, him just continuing to challenge himself to get better and perfect his craft, that's just him. He would never slack. That's just Cole. That's been him since he walked through the door."

Kmet routinely set the example of having a growth mindset in 2023 by demonstrating consistency through the ups and downs of the seasons while continually raising the bar of his individual performance on a weekly basis.

That dependability as an all-around player, teammate and leader is a trait Poles and the Bears staff value more than anything. 

Six months after working through that four-year extension – Poles' first as a general manager and Kmet's first as a player – Poles is thrilled about how that extension has already paid off. In watching Kmet push himself in Year 4 and continuously raise his own standards, Poles also knows that Kmet will continue to work to try and elevate his game to an even higher level in 2024 and beyond.

"You could tell his mindset switched to 'let me set that next bar for me to go after,' which is 'I'm going to prove to you that I'm even better than what this contract is, and I'm going to move it to the next tier of tight ends,'" Poles said.

"So I love that about the guys that we have on our team, and I love that about Cole. And again, I want that to be the example. I talked in I think my introductory press conference when I first got the job, I want guys that want their names etched into the stadium, which really is saying that they're going to continue to raise the bar to get better and better and better."

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