Optimism at Halas Hall prevails over Cole Kmet after he made more receptions and gained more receiving yards than any tight end in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Kmet essentially played only three-quarters of a season because the Bears brought him along very slowly in terms of meaningful play reps.
"So the more reps he got, the better he got with just playing football, a lot of it with his run blocking, his pass protection, his route running, knowing how to run certain routes vs. man and vs. zone and things like that," tight ends coach Clancy Barone said.
While it's true tight ends often are slow to the mark in the NFL, there are a few situations of concern apparent in Kmet's early development. They revolve around his route running and the team's ability to get him the ball downfield more.
The number reflecting this is his 8.7 yards per reception. The 28 receptions reflected a nice total for a rookie tight end. However, there were 47 tight ends in the NFL who caught at least 20 passes last year and only four of them had worse averages per reception than Kmet.
Pro Football Focus hasn't been a fan of Kmet's since the Bears drafted him. The analytical website often sets a narrative on a player and likes to harp on it to make their initial judgments look better. In Kmet's case, he's going to need to prove the PFF knock wrong because they saw him as unable to run routes well or get open for many yards after the catch.
PFF criticized Kmet for 691 yards receiving in college.
"Kmet has very few reps on his tape that show him getting open one-on-one rather than a result of being schemed space. That's concerning for a top-50 pick," PFF said.
However, there are very few college tight ends who actually do get open one-on-one. It's more often the result of a defensive scheme taking away a primary receiver and leaving an exploitable, obvious gap.
Tight ends are not high-priority receivers in most college offenses. Quarterbacks are not advanced enough to get through their progressions all the way down to a tight end, and it's part of the reason they fail to adjust quickly in the NFL. Those with elevated route-running skills can do it, but there are few.
When Kmet had the best production of all rookie tight ends last year, it's also an indication of how few there are ready to step in and play the position at an NFL level.
Kmet must become more adept at running routes and adjusting routes on the fly, and the team has to become better at getting him the ball in deeper routes.
"The big thing for him moving forward is going to be taking the next step in that progression and a lot of it is understanding pre-snap vs. post snap, how to adjust things on the run," Barone said. "When the picture changes while you're moving, that's something that all young players seem to struggle with at all positions and Cole is no different. Just to get him used to seeing that–that is going to be a big goal for us moving forward this spring is to get him to being more at ease with adjusting to plays in the game after the ball is snapped."
One other aspect of the game often criticized by PFF with Kmet is depth of target.
This is only partially Kmet's fault and more the fault of the Bears offense.
First, he's playing the in-line or Y tight end position in the Bears offense and it doesn't offer as much opportunity for routes downfield like the "U" or move-tight end has. But there are chances. It's more the responsibility of the quarterback to take advantage.
The Bears offense has had trouble getting the ball downfield since Nagy became coach, and even before he became coach in another offensive system. The main reason for this has been the quarterbacks lacked deep-passing accuracy to get it there.
Jay Cutler did it but had other problems. No one since then has done it consistently, the chief culprit being Mitchell Trubisky. However, Nick Foles failed at it last year, as well.
A better deep-passing game is what the Bear sought with Justin Fields. They could even get more of it from Andy Dalton, although his numbers in this area have declined considerably over the past four seasons.
Better downfield passing opens up middle routes and shorter routes, allowing for more yards after the catch. This is where Kmet can show one of his great strengths -- if he gets a few extra steps he can pummel would-be tacklers after the reception.
He did this on a few pass routes last year and the Bears would like to see more of it.
It was a quality Nagy, Pace and some assistant coaches saw in Kmet when they were looking at film at Halas Hall before the 2020 draft.
Kmet has the chance to take strides in his second season the way other tight ends have done in this style of offense, like Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce and Dallas Goedert. There are other ways the Bears can deploy him to help in this regard. They used him in more two-tight end sets as the season continued, and Barone thinks it's possible they'll do it more.
"I would think so, if that's at all possible," Barone said. "The big thing is, as we know, Cole's reps got more and more and more in volume as the season progressed so I think it's going to be natural that he'd be out there with Jimmy more and more as the season went on. But you have two guys that are 6-6 and 6-7 that can be a nice big-bodied target and those make matchup advantages for the Bears.
"When you have one out there, you have one big guy that can be a big target advantage and when you have two out there, it doubles your chances obviously."