LAKE FOREST – Near the end of a recent Bears practice during OTAs, rookie quarterback Justin Fields zipped a pass up the middle of the field during 11-on-11s. Second-year tight end Cole Kmet caught the line drive in traffic, with defenders draped on either side of him, for a touchdown.
It was a glimpse into the future.
“Justin Fields complete to Cole Kmet” could be a phrase Bears fans grow accustomed to over the next few seasons. It could take time as the rookie quarterback develops. The second-year pro Kmet knows that as well as anyone.
“I was in that position last year [as a rookie],” said Kmet, a Lake Barrington native. “I know how I felt. It’s a life-changing feeling and he’s definitely here and ready to prove himself and get a good start to his NFL career.”
In Fields and Kmet, the Bears hope they have two key pieces that power most successful modern NFL offenses: a mobile quarterback with a rocket arm, and an athletic tight end who presents matchup problems for any defense.
Kmet, 22, wasn’t a touchdown machine last season as a rookie, but he didn’t need to be. That’s what veteran Jimmy Graham was for. Graham caught eight touchdown passes.
However, the tight end snap counts were telling. By the end of the season, Kmet was playing 80 to 90 percent of offensive snaps, while Graham’s usage dropped over the course of the season. The Bears were grooming Kmet for the future.
With Graham back for his second season in Chicago, the Bears believe they have two highly capable tight ends. Tight ends coach Clancy Barone would certainly like to see both of them on the field together more often.
“When you have one [tight end] out there, you have one big guy that can be a big target advantage,” Barone said. “And when you have two out there, it doubles your chances, obviously. So, yeah, we’d like to do that more often, if possible, but everything depends on the game plan.”
Kmet finished his rookie season with 28 receptions for 243 yards and two touchdowns. He said the biggest thing he learned from his rookie season was that it’s a long season – and it’s only becoming longer with the addition of a 17th regular season game. Taking care of his body is key.
He also believes his feel for the game improved over the course of the year.
“[It’s] something that I’m even feeling right now in practice,” Kmet said. “I’m feeling more confident out there. So between recognizing coverages and fronts and things like that, those are things I kind of noticed that I’ve got to be on top of going into year two.”
Whether it’s Fields or veteran quarterback Andy Dalton leading the offense, the Bears need their tight ends to be involved. As the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed in January, the teams that best utilize their tight ends usually make deep playoff runs.
Kmet spent his offseason taking online classes working toward finishing his degree at Notre Dame. He spent a week in Florida with Graham, who took him out in his helicopter (Graham is an avid pilot).
Kmet said he started up with his weightlifting routine again in mid-March.
“I’m stronger,” Kmet said. “I feel like I’m quicker and faster right now.”
Kmet looks forward to the creative ways that Nagy will come up with to use him this season, whether the team is running or passing.
“He creates matchups in the pass game and he can hold an edge and dent a defense in the run game,” Nagy said. “So that’s really exciting for us to be able to use him more, that’s why we drafted him where we drafted him last year.”