INDIANAPOLIS — You don’t need to be a Bears fan to know they need a tight end.
Cole Kmet, though, is both. The kid who grew up cheering for the Bears and dominating at St. Viator High School might be the best tight end in this year’s draft.
The Notre Dame standout has thought about landing with the Bears, who have two picks — No. 43 and 50 — in the second round in this year’s NFL Draft.
“For sure, I definitely looked at it,” he said this week at the NFL Scouting Combine. “And it would be a great opportunity to play in Chicago, play in the hometown. That would be a lot of fun.”
Kmet is only 20. He left school a year early after catching 43 passes for 515 yards for the Irish last season. He spent two years on the baseball team, too, leading Notre Dame in saves as a freshman, but said he has given up the sport.
“Football is where my heart was,” he said, “and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam grew up a Bears fan in Springfield. He tries not to think about a potential Bears pairing, though.
“I saw flashes of it on social media and stuff like that, but it’s so unpredictable,” said the 6-5, 258-pound Okwuegbunam, who caught 98 passes for 1,187 yards and 23 touchdowns over three seasons. “I try not to get too invested in all that stuff.”
Kmet is closer to the top of teams’ prospect lists. NFL Network draft guru Daniel Jeremiah puts him in the top tier of tight-end draft candidates along with Dayton’s Adam Trautman and FAU’s Harrison Bryant.
“I think all those guys are in position to, potentially, be the first tight end picked,” he said. “I don’t think any of them are first-round guys.”
That could bode well for the Bears, who don’t have a first-round pick, but do have a tight-end problem.
“We’re looking at it in free agency and the draft,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “It’s deep in different areas. And so, yeah, that’s an area of focus for us. I don’t think that’s a secret. This offense, a lot of it goes through the tight end. We’re exploring every avenue.”
A banged-up Trey Burton had only 14 catches last year, which, amazingly, led all Bears tight ends. Of the six tight ends who caught a pass last season, J.P. Holtz led the team with 91 receiving yards.
The Bears are hopeful that Burton, who had his second surgery in less than a year to try to fix a mysterious sports hernia problem, will be 100 percent by training camp. Banking on a full return, though, lies somewhere between risky and naive.
Besides the quarterback position, tight end is the most critical position in coach Matt Nagy’s offense.
The team might feel more comfortable entrusting that key role to a veteran than a rookie. Between learning blocking schemes and pass routes, tight ends often have the hardest time transitioning from college to the pros.
They figure to pursue a free agent — the Falcons’ Austin Hooper and the Chargers’ Hunter Henry are at the top of the class — when the league year opens March 18.
Earlier this month, they signed Demetrius Harris after he was cut by the Browns. They consider Harris, who played for Kansas City, more of a blocking “Y” tight end.
“He knows this offense — the terminology, the verbiage,” Nagy said. “So he’s excited, we’re excited. But that’s certainly an area that we want to get better statistically, for sure. It’s big for us.”