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Bears are fine at tight end — if rookie Cole Kmet is on his way to stardom

Kmet is probably the only tight end who will be back next season. If he grows into a pass-catching monster, that’s fine.

Cole Kmet is getting a lot more playing time, but his production hasn’t gone up with it.
Cole Kmet is getting a lot more playing time, but his production hasn’t gone up with it.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AP

The Bears might not be much better off at tight end at the conclusion of this season than they were a year ago. That hinges on what second-round pick Cole Kmet shows in the last five games.

Of their six tight ends, including injured reserve and the practice squad, Kmet is likely the only one who will be back next season. And while he has shown promise and appears to be a quality player, he’s not yet the dynamic playmaker they need.

Kmet’s playing time spiked to 70% of the offensive snaps against the Vikings and 79% against the Packers, but his production remained flat. He was targeted three times in each game and came away with two catches for 15 yards. He has eight catches, 94 yards and a touchdown for the season.

“You want to get the ball and all of that stuff, but I’m just doing whatever I need to do and the coaches ask of me,” he said Thursday. “I’m more than happy doing those things.”

“Those things” mainly mean blocking, and it’s a positive for the Bears that he has done well in that department.

Former All-Pro Jimmy Graham was supposed to be the Bears’ dynamic pass-catching tight end, a dicey bet given his decline the previous three seasons, but he doesn’t have the speed at 34 to get the Bears downfield.

Graham still has the body to make basketball-style plays when it’s a short field, and he has nine catches for 60 yards and five touchdowns in the red zone. In the rest of the field, he has 29 catches for 274 yards. His longest reception is for 29 yards.

He is on pace for the third-lowest yardage total of his career, a hair above the 447 he had with the Packers last season, but that’s not entirely surprising. The rest of the NFL seemed to see that coming as Graham sat unsigned more than a week into free agency before Bears general manager Ryan Pace thundered in with a two-year, $16 million offer.

The Bears can, should and probably will get out of the second season of that deal by absorbing a

$3 million dead-cap hit. Graham has been better than any of the tight ends the Bears had last season, when the entire group combined for 46 catches, 416 yards and two touchdowns, but he isn’t worth the $10 million the team would have to pay in 2021.

The Bears’ other free-agent signing, journeyman Demetrius Harris, saw his playing time plummet to 15 snaps in the last four games as Kmet increasingly ate into his role.

Another near-clean sweep of the tight end room is fine as long as Kmet keeps improving. It was unrealistic to think he’d be an instant star, but the Bears need him to become a legitimate pass-catching threat by the start of next season.

“I love, you know, where he’s at mentally, physically,” coach Matt Nagy said. “What we want to continue to try to do is keep scheming him some more throws.

“He’s somebody that when you look back in 10 or 15 years, you’ll realize that this kid is going to have a really, really great career, and you feel confident with it. You don’t really have any doubt about that.”