The Bears went into 2023 with Cole Kmet firmly in place as the top tight end on the roster. General manager Ryan Poles had to figure out how to find the right tight ends to complement Kmet. He set about retooling the rest of the tight end room.
The Bears signed McHenry native Robert Tonyan and 39-year-old veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis, both of whom had played for offensive coordinator Luke Getsy in Green Bay. The Bears also signed Kmet to a four-year, $50 million contract extension before the season.
Here’s a look back at what went well and what didn’t at the tight end position.
After signing a long-term deal with the team, Kmet had his most productive season as a pro. He caught a career-high 73 passes and totaled a career-high 719 receiving yards. His six receiving touchdowns were one short of last season’s total. Those numbers made Kmet the team’s No. 2 receiver behind DJ Moore. Kmet played in all 17 games and has not missed a game since the Bears drafted him in 2020.
Locking up homegrown talent like Kmet is a priority for Poles and his front office. Among NFL tight ends, Kmet finished top 10 in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns in 2023. With the extension, the 24-year-old Kmet will continue to be a focal point of the passing game over the next four seasons.
Tonyan never truly emerged as a reliable second option in the passing attack. That wasn’t necessarily his fault, however, because the Bears’ passing attack didn’t feature enough opportunities to support two tight ends. The Bears ranked 27th in passing among the league’s 32 teams. Moore and Kmet ate up a huge percentage of the targets.
Tonyan finished the season with 11 receptions for 112 yards. He saw only 17 targets all season. At this point in his career, Lewis still is in the NFL primarily because of his elite blocking skills from the tight end position. As a pass catcher, he saw only five targets and cashed in with four catches for 29 yards and one touchdown.
1. What a catch! Easily the best catch of the season by a Bears tight end was an 18-yard touchdown catch that Kmet made in a Week 9 game in New Orleans. Kmet went airborne with a safety in his face. QB Tyson Bagent threw him a perfect ball. Even with contact on the play, Kmet extended his arms and made a beautiful two-handed catch for six points.
2. Big drop: Unfortunately, most fans will think of a brutal drop when they think of Tonyan’s 2023 season. Tonyan was wide open in the first quarter during a crucial game in Cleveland. Justin Fields rolled to his right and unleashed a perfect deep ball that fell into – and then out of – Tonyan’s hands. On a day when the Bears’ only touchdown-scoring drive totaled 1 yard, they really could’ve used a big play there.
3. Big Dog scores: Lewis, nicknamed Big Dog, was playing his 18th NFL season this year. That marked a record for an NFL tight end. Lewis, Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez had all reached 17 seasons. Lewis arrived in Chicago largely to be a mentor to the team’s young players.
But he also found the end zone during a Christmas Eve matchup against Arizona. Fields connected with Lewis for his 40th career touchdown reception.
Kmet is under contract for four more seasons. Tonyan and Lewis are free agents. The Bears gave a futures contract to practice squad tight end Stephen Carlson.
Shaw Local Grade: B
Kmet had a nice season. The Bears need a second tight end to emerge as a reliable pass catcher.
Under offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, the Seahawks did a tremendous job utilizing multiple tight ends. During each of the past two seasons, Seattle had three tight ends total at least 15 catches apiece. The Bears haven’t had two tight ends do that in the same year since 2020.
With Waldron now in Chicago, the Bears likely will look to find a reliable second tight end. That could mean bringing back Tonyan and making a more concerted effort to keep him involved. That also could include drafting a tight end. Kmet will remain the focal point of this position, but the Bears must give him more help.
At a minimum, the Bears should look to sign a veteran and add a rookie in the draft.