History Says Bears Need Patience with Cole Kmet
Cole Kmet faces a daunting task this year with the Bears as a rookie tight end in a league and a city where rookie tight ends usually contribute little.
The Bears look at Kmet's skills and say it can be different with the Barrington, Ill. native because he's been so impressive and has barely begun to explore his talents.
"I think that that's a big part of his value is that we really feel like he's getting better," Bears GM Ryan Pace said. "He's just scratching the surface. And to be honest, you could see it this year on tape, when you watched some of the early games, I think around the Virginia Tech game, and you could really feel his game taking off on all levels. And Cole will say that, too. So he's definitely an ascending player."
Plenty of other Bears tight ends have been ascending over the 58 years after Mike Ditka was selected in the 1961 draft class and none even approached his rookie marks. That's not really surprising because Ditka set a high bar.
In that 1961 season Ditka caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns. The touchdown catch record and the yardage record are still NFL rookie records.
The Bears' haven't had anyone besides Greg Olsen in 2007 who could even be put in the same sentence.
Olsen came up a full 19 catches short with 39. His 391 yards were not within view of Ditka's record, and he had only two touchdown catches.
The identity of the player with the third-best rookie season might shock some longtime Bears fans who remember him.
It's Alonzo Mayes and his 21 receptions, the same 1998 fourth-round pick from Oklahoma State who held out for more money. That's right, a fourth-round pick held out for more money.
Mayes also had tested positive for marijuana at the scouting combine, and then missed a few flights from Houston to Chicago, where he was supposed to connect and get a flight to Lacrosse, Wis. The Bears were practicing there against Ditka's New Orleans Saints. Upon arriving at the airport there, he was asked about his missed flights and his answer was: “Sometimes it just ain't yo' day."
In fact, when the rookie ledger of Bears tight end draft picks is studied, that 12-catch, 127-yard season in 2017 by Adam Shaheen really doesn't look too bad.
A few others had similar catch numbers to Shaheen, like 1988 fourth-rounder James "Robocop" Thornton with 15 and Bob Fisher with 12 in 1980. But Shaheen's three rookie touchdown catches were the most by any Bears rookie tight end draft pick besides Ditka.
So expecting Kmet to put up big numbers in his first year simply might not be realistic. It doesn't help his cause that the Bears have numerous alternatives including Jimmy Graham, Demetrius Harris, Ben Braunecker and several others.
Sure, he was a talented second-round pick. It's what was said of second-rounder John Allred, who had eight catches for 70 yards and a TD in 1998. Second-rounder Tim Wrightman who opted for the USFL as a rookie in 1982 and didn't play for the Bears for three years. Their other second-round tight end draft pick was Bill Martin, chosen in 1964 just three years after Ditka. He made three catches for 93 yards.
From 1965-1979 the Bears drafted nine tight ends and the only one to make even one catch as a rookie was Bob Parsons in 1972 when he made one 6-yard reception. It went for a touchdown. Then he became a full-time punter.
Bears Rookie Draft Picks
Tight End, Year
Mike Ditka, 1961
Greg Olsen, 2007
Alonzo Mayes, 1998
James Thornton, 1988
Bob Fisher, 1980
Adam Shaheen, 2017
Chris Gedney, 1993
Pat Dunsmore, 1983
John Allred, 1997
Evan Rodriguez, 2012
This isn't necessarily an indictment of Bears drafting over the years. Certainly many of their picks haven't been good, but many other teams have had the same troubles with drafting at this position and getting immediate returns.
In fact, since Giants rookie Jeremy Shockey made a run at Ditka's yardage record with 894 yards in 2002, there have been only two other rookie tight ends who produced as many as 600 receiving yards―the Giants' Evan Engram (722 in 2017) and Seattle's John Carlson in 2008 (627).
Olsen acknowledged the difficulty rookies have at his position in an ESPN interview a few years ago, and gave a four-word explanation: "I don't know why."
Kmet at least realizes building his legacy will take a while.
"So I just have to continue to work on my things in terms of route running and obviously still working on my blocking and stuff," he said after being drafted. "Just continue to work on my route running and my speed and all that type of stuff and that will help translate as the year goes on next year."
Tight ends coach Clancy Barone looks at a tight end with 6-foot-6 height, 4.7-second speed in the 40 and a recent past of achievement in a program known for tight ends and sees great potential.
"There's always something that has to be developed," Barone said. "That's going to be part of the fun of going through training camp, is I want to throw him in there and watch him compete. I don't think he'll have any trouble competing. That's in his DNA.
"But I think he has to be patient with himself, because there's going to be a learning curve. And also I'll be patient with him and things of that nature. But he's a guy I hope that we can plug in and watch him go."
The Bears have plugged in many since George Halas sent Ditka out on the Wrigley Field turf in 1961 and almost none went anywhere until Year 2, at best.
Cole Kmet at a Glance
Notre Dame TE
Key Numbers: Kmet was also a baseball pitcher and had a Notre Dame career ERA of 4.43, a 2-7 record with 66 strikeouts in 65 innings pitched, and 10 saves. Part of the reason the Bears think he can develop quickly and extensively is he was trying to play baseball and football through his next-to-last football season.
Chances of Starting Opening Day: 3 on a 1-5 scale with 5 being the most.
2020 Projection: 31 receptions, 322 yards, 4 TDs.