I feel like i’ve got to start this article with a disclaimer: I genuinely hope Cole Kmet becomes a great football player and ends up as a quicker version of fellow former Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph. In fact, the future of Ryan Pace as the General Manager for the Bears will be partially dependent on his ability to become a productive NFL player. This article isn’t about whether I believe that Cole Kmet can become a top tier NFL Tight End.
Coming into night two of the NFL draft, there was a common refrain among experts: This is the deepest second round in 25 years. The talent level ran deep at several important positions, notably wide receiver and safety. The Bears were standing at number 43 with their first pick in the draft, having lost their first round pick in exchange for Khalil Mack last season. Among the main needs at the pick were wide receiver and safety, along with offensive line help and cornerbacks. As the second round began to shake out, a dream scenario was being laid out for Chicago. Two of the best safeties in the draft, Grant Delpit and Antoine Winfield Jr. were both becoming available. Delpit won the Thorpe Award in 2019 given to college football’s best secondary player. Winfield Jr. is a hard hitting safety who thrives on trying to blow up the box and tackle the running back behind the line of scrimmage.
In 2018, Eddie Jackson leapt onto the national radar playing alongside Adrian Amos because Amos wasn’t afraid to get up in the box and do the dirty work, allowing Jackson to play deeper in coverage, where he is at his best. Last season, Jackson was less efficient with Haha Clinton-Dix starting next to him because their games overlap too much, and too often, Jackson was caught too close to the line of scrimmage, which is a weakness for him. After Clinton Dix left in free agency this offseason, the Bears were left with Deon Bush as the starting safety. Bush has been with the team for 4 seasons, and in that time has done very little to earn not only a starting spot, but any playing time. After being on the field for 33% of the team’s defensive snaps in his rookie year, his usage rate went down. Bush was only on the field for 5% of the team’s defensive snaps in 2019. He is in the final year of his rookie contract and has a cap hit under one million dollars. That is about the best thing he has going for him.
Now, with the Bears on the clock they were being given a huge opportunity to reinforce one of the biggest weakness on their defense, a defense that has carried them for two straight seasons. Either player was going to help them from day one. Either guy would be the starter come opening day.
They drafted Cole Kmet.
The headline on ESPN wasn’t that the Bears had drafted the top tight end in the draft. The headline on ESPN was that the Bears now had 10 tight ends on their active roster. The headline wasn’t some sort of Onion’esque parody. The Bears actually have ten tight ends currently on their active roster. The last second round pick the Bears made at tight end, noted flop Adam Shaheen is still on the roster. Demetrius Harris was an early offseason acquisition. Ben Braunecker and JP Holts are still on the roster. Practice squad standout Dax Raymond is still around. So is Thanksgiving Day star Jesper Horsted. Darion Clark and Eric Saubert are also on the roster. That makes nine. The tenth tight end is the biggest reason that the Bears shouldn’t have drafted a tight end.
Jimmy Graham has generally been considered one of the worst free agent signings of the entire offseason. The Bears gave the former star a 2 year/18 million dollar contract and, in a move that can only be considered an ego massaging dickaround, they gave him a full no-trade clause. It’s most likely a moot point, as nobody is going to trade for a washed up tight end whose best days are so far behind him, that there are children entering the first grade that weren’t born the last time he was an effective player.
Graham’s contract is a boondoggle just in base value. It’s made worse by the fact that the Bears cut Trey Burton last week. For those not familiar with how the salary cap works, and how contracts are set up to game the system, Burton had his contract set up so most of his value was in the first three years of his contract. When he was cut before year 3, that didn’t mean that the Bears didn’t have that money counted against them, anymore. Most free agent contracts in the NFL carry something called “dead money.” That’s the amount of money that a player counts against the team’s salary cap whether the player is on the team or not. This exists to keep teams from just cutting people whenever they want with no consequences.
By cutting Trey Burton at this point, his dead money cap hit for the Bears this season? 7.5 Million. That goes along with the 9 million that Jimmy Graham is making this season. In total, the Bears are currently spending 22.5 million this season on tight ends, and that’s BEFORE you take into account Cole Kmet’s cap hit, which will be around 2 million dollars. Even before Kmet, the Bears had the most money invested in the tight end position in the entire NFL. The Buccaneers are the only team within six million dollars of them. As it stands currently, the average cost for NFL teams at the position is 9.8 million. The Bears have blown past that by 230%.
Well none of that matters because Cole Kmet is going to be the starting tight end anyway.
Yes, that absolutely matters. If you believe the above statement, it shows that you have a complete and fundamental lack of understanding for how an NFL roster is built, and the constraints teams, and especially the Bears, have against the salary cap. Going into the offseason, the Bears were 27th in the league in salary cap flexibility. They handed a large contract to defensive end Robert Quinn. They resigned Danny Trevathan. Jimmy Graham was brought in. They brought in veterans Germain Ifedi and Barkevious Mingo on low end prove it deals. They reworked several contracts, including Khalil Mack’s, to work around the cap space. In doing so, they had to make tough decisions and let Haha Clinton Dix, Nick Kwiakoswki, and Kevin Pierre-Louis go. They are pretty well maxed out in their salary cap space.
The draft was going to be the last real opportunity that Bears would have to fill the holes in their roster. Again, their roster issues given their free agent signings and already on contract players were Safety, Cornerback, Offensive Line, Wide Receiver. You notice how tight end isn’t on that list, and you still don’t understand after reading the previous paragraphs, i’ll try and lay this out for you…
Even if Jimmy Graham is the worst player in the league this year, the fact that he will be out there along with the rest of the tight end armada means that you cannot use your first pick in the draft on a tight end. You have already filled that hole. Drafting a player at tight end is putting a band aid on a bullet wound. There are nine tight ends currently under contract on the roster. The Bears were not forced to have those players on the roster. They chose to. And in doing so, they were making the financial and roster commitment to the position.
I’m not going to explain how many positions exist for a starting football team. If you are reading this, you should already know. If you have nine tight ends on your roster, when you can honestly only have five on your roster come opening day, and only have 1 to 2 on the field at all times, then that is no longer a position of need, regardless of player quality. If you are really that hellbent on having a 10th tight end, then take a lottery pick on one in the late rounds.
But he’s so good, he can start right away.
No, he really can’t. Even the most optimistic projections of him don’t have him being ready right away. That’s not how the NFL works, and it’s definitely not how it works for tight ends. The tight end position is arguably the toughest in the NFL because of the combination of skills necessary. You have to learn the entire offensive playbook in terms of route running. You have to learn whether to spread out on an audible. Then, beyond that, you need to learn blocking assignments. Tight ends need to know what they are going to do if the linebacker blitzes off the edge. They need to know when to inline block on a running assignment. If the edge lineman backs into coverage, they need to change their entire blocking assignment. It’s a lot.
Last year was considered one of the best tight end drafts of a generation, with TJ Hockenson, Noah Fant, and Irv Smith Jr. all being drafted in the first round. Would you like to take a guess at how many of them had any effect on their team last year? Hockenson caught a couple touchdowns but became a complete liability in blocking and ran the incorrect route a lot. Irv Smith was a complete non factor because of his inability to maintain blocks when running back Dalvin Cook was trying to get to the edge and into the second level.
Only Fant had any impact, and even then it was only later in the season. The best tight end last season had the gaudy stats of 2.4 receptions per game and 3 total touchdowns. Being a tight end in the NFL isn’t easy. There is a huge growth curve.
But what about George Kittle? He’s really good!
Congratulations, you played fantasy football last season. If you had bothered to do even an ounce of research, you would see that not only did George Kittle only have 40 receptions as a rookie, but he was also a 5th round draft pick on a team that had gone 2-14 the previous season. He was not the second round pick at an impact draft spot on a team with playoff aspirations.
But he’ll be perfect for the Bears!
Will he? Last night, Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy did a press conference where they were asked what their plan was for Cole Kmet. They said they want him to be the Y tight end in the Bears offense, while Jimmy Graham will operate more in the U tight end position.
Y Tight End: a tight end who is expected to be both a blocker at the edge of the offensive line as well as running passing routes.
U Tight End: a tight end who almost exclusively runs routes and isn’t an active participant in the running game.
Jimmy Graham is kind of the U Tight End by default. Even when he was good, he was allergic to blocking. Graham actively avoids contact whenever possible. It is a big part of the reason his usage rate has gone down steadily every year. When he was a star player on the Saints, he didn’t need to block, because Drew Brees was so smart with the offense that he could make it work. His effectiveness failed when he got to Seattle because Russell Wilson likes to use his legs to keep a play alive, and Graham had too much of a tendency to give up on blocks too quickly.
By the time he was in Green Bay, Graham was seen more exclusively as a red zone target. After playing 74% of Green Bay’s snaps during Mike McCarthy’s final season in 2018, he only saw the field on 58% of plays, as Green Bay went to more of a run based offense.
Yea, but he’s a local guy. That means the Bears have seen him more and know him better!
This isn’t the 1930’s you fucking yokel. The scouting department of teams isn’t just the head coach taking the train on his off days to scout who they can in the Great Lakes area before getting back to their jobs at the cow anus processing factory that they work at all week in between football games.
The level of sophistication that NFL teams employ now is staggering. Not only have they seen every play of every tight end that they have ever wanted to scout, they can tell you within 0.001 second how long it takes for that player to get off the snap. If the best tight end prospect in the draft was playing in the ashes of a Yugoslavian soccer stadium, then the Buffalo Bills could tell you with the click of a mouse how good his fast twitch motion is when he’s going out on a 2 yard flat pattern.
Just because you watch maybe five football games every year, and you only think someone is good because they are from the area and that gets you excited because you aren’t smart enough to understand the global reach of the game, doesn’t mean that there are 32 teams in the NFL that think the way you do.
Then he’ll be the blocking tight end. He’s good at that. I watched a Notre Dame game last year!
Literally nobody with any level of credibility has referred to Kmet as a good blocking tight end. His scouting report on NFL.com specifically mentions that his inability to block and his inability to get off blocks when he goes out into routes are huge weaknesses. In fact, these were what was said about him:
- Body control and strength as a blocker need work
- Below-average instincts and angles as move blocker
- Inefficient and slow getting into block fits
- Needs to play with earlier inside hands and rolled hips at point of attack
- Too tall coming off the ball and into his routes
- Has issues playing through contact within the first five yards
He is, at best, a project at the Y tight end position at this point in his career. And here is the problem. All of his scouting reports mention his inability to block and get off blocks. i’m just using NFL.com as an example because I had the tab open to it. To get the best use out of Kmet in 2020, he would have to be used in the U tight end position, where he can line up more as an inline wide receiver where he won’t face as much bump and run coverage, and can take advantage of being lined up against a third cornerback or an outside linebacker. At his most effective, Kmet can use his side to take advantage of smaller defensive backs, and should have enough speed (though his 40 yard dash time of 4.7 seconds isn’t exactly earth shattering) to get past linebackers in coverage.
That isn’t how he is going to be used, though. The Bears could employ two U tight end sets and try to find mismatches in the offense. The problem has more to do in that situation with the lack of ability in the quarterback spot for the team. Mitch Trubisky averaged 6.1 yards per attempt last year, which is the lowest in the NFL. Nick Foles lost his job less than a year after getting a mega contract in Jacksonville. Neither is a world beater. Neither is the type of guy who has the patience in the pocket to allow a player like Cole Kmet to get past the second level of the defense and get a clean look in front of the safeties.
The offense for the Bears has extreme limitations due to the quarterback position. And a lot of inexperience at wide receiver behind Allen Robinson. And a sketchy commitment to the running game. And an offensive line that regressed last year after a solid 2018.
In a roundabout way, im trying to say that in that position of the draft, one player on offense wasn’t going to fix all of the Bears problems.
But they could have found a piece that would have really been a finishing touch on the Bears defense. This is made even more glaring by the fact that they drafted cornerback Jaylon Johnson with their second pick of the 2nd round. In spite of the overwelming deficiencies on offense, the Bears have stayed competitive over the past two seasons due to how great their defense is. While they did lose some good players to free agency, Ryan Pace has generally been very adept at drafting good players that fit the Bears scheme on defense. Here is a quick look at the players on each side of the ball that Pace has selected over the past four seasons:
Roquan Smith can be a world wrecker when his head is on straight. Bilal Nichols could play himself into a huge contract after this season. Eddie Jackson is one of the best safeties in the game. Nick Kwiatkowski played well enough that the Bears couldn’t afford to keep him this offseason. On the other hand, out of courtesy, I didn’t bother to put Adam Shaheen on the list because he has been such a spectacular bust. But, Trubisky played himself into quarterbacking limbo last year. David Montgomery looked lost. Anthony Miller is only effective in spurts. Cody Whitehair regressed last season. Tarik Cohen fell off a cliff.
The Bears obviously have at least a grasp on who they should be drafting, and based on success rate, they should be investing as many resources as possible on reinforcing a defense that is good enough to keep them in games every week even with less than ideal results out of the offense.
At the end of the day, what this comes down to is: WHAT HELPS THE BEARS THE MOST IN THE 2020 SEASON? It is a useless exercise to try to determine how good a player will be in 2021. It’s the NFL, too many things can go wrong. You have to try to play to win in the season that’s in front of you. For the Bears, their best chance is to win by being one of the best defensive teams in the league. As I said above, one player can’t fix the offense. One player can close the biggest gap on the defense and bring them together to a potentially elite level, though.
The two most glaring defensive holes were the cornerback and safety position. They grabbed a play making cornerback at 50. That’s not the issue. But at 43, sitting there, were two potentially great safeties that fit the Bears scheme well enough that they could expect to be day one starters over the incumbent, who again is Deon Bush. They could have really swung for the fences on defense in the second round and given themselves an opportunity to be an elite team this season, one that plays well enough on defense to give even the best teams fits, while allowing their offense to do just enough to win games.
In a city like Chicago that adopts defenses as if they are the foul mouth son they always wish they had, the other side of the ball will always be secondary to them. This is a city that prays at the altar of Butkus, Singletary, Dent, and Urlacher. Mike Ditka only got carried off the field at Super Bowl XX because people were afraid his feelings would get hurt if Buddy Ryan was the only one carried off. This is a city that takes pride in the mockery of the Super Fans. They don’t care about trendy offense. They don’t care about gadget plays. This is a city and a fandom that has cheered on their defenses for decades. It’s a sense of pride, passed down between the generations. Going into this season, with the addition of Robert Quinn opposite Khalil Mack, and with a healthy Akeim Hicks, the Bears were ready to remind the entire NFL they were the Monster of the Midway.
Then they drafted Cole Kmet.