Cole Kmet’s mom was the first to gasp.
Her son, the St. Viator alum who went to Notre Dame as a two-sport star and left it as the NFL Draft’s top tight-end prospect, answered a FaceTime call Friday to see Bears coach Matt Nagy staring back at him.
“Coming back home, baby,” Nagy said. “You’re coming back home.”
“Let’s do it,” Kmet said, thumping his chest with his right arm.
By then, the rest of the Kmet family gathered around the couch in Arlington Heights knew what was happening — the Bears were taking Cole with the No. 43 pick of the draft. Some starting crying, others clapping. Someone whispered to text grandma.
Surrounded by his four sons in a room wallpapered with his old play-call sheets, Nagy smiled — “I got chills, man,” he said — and asked Kmet to point the phone around the room.
“They’re freaking out right now,” Kmet told his new coach.
The Bears chose one of their own. Kmet’s dad, Frank, played defensive line for the Bears’ practice squad in 1993 and raised his son as a fan of the team. Kmet became the highest Notre Dame player taken by the Bears since the AFL-NFL merger.
Kmet has spent this strange pre-draft period lifting weights at a makeshift gym he set up in his grandma’s house in Lake Barrington. He runs hills in Fox River Grove, near the ski jump.
“I know everyone likes the Walter Payton hill,” he said, “but I go to that one.”
His selection is a feel-good story at a time when Chicago could use one.
If that’s all it were, though, there would be reason to panic. The city’s history is littered with pro athletes whose key qualifications to play for the team is the fact that they grew up here.
But it also was a good football move, particularly when combined with the decision that general manager Ryan Pace made only seven selections later.
Rather than trade back to pick up extra selections — something Pace had done three times in the second round during his career — he stayed put and selected Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson at No. 50. Johnson is a first-round talent who fell, in part, because of the fact that he’s only seven weeks removed from right shoulder surgery.
Combine the two picks, and Pace accomplished precisely what he needed to do Friday night — land impact players to fill two of the team’s five outstanding needs.
In Kmet, Pace grabbed the first tight end taken in the draft. In Johnson, he got the first cornerback selected in the second round — and the seventh overall.
That’s a solid haul, even if the two will help to fill holes of Pace’s own making. A week ago Friday, Pace decided to cut tight end Trey Burton, who spent most of last year injured. The Colts picked him up quickly; he told Indianapolis reporters Friday that he was misdiagnosed before last season and rushed to play too soon.
Kmet becomes, as Burton was, the 10th member of the team’s tight-end room — by far the largest group at the position in the NFL. The Bears figure to trim that figure now that they’ve invested draft capital in Kmet and serious money in free agent Jimmy Graham. The Bears gave him a two-year, $16 million deal just last month, but he can be cut after one year for $9 million.
Kmet and Graham are complementary pieces, Pace said, because they play different positions. Pace called Kmet a “classic” Y tight end — meaning he’ll line up on the line of scrimmage and be asked to block often. Graham, a pass-catching U tight end, splits out like a slot receiver.
Kmet will have to beat out newcomer Demetrius Harris for playing time at Y — and perhaps former second-round pick Adam Shaheen, if he’s still on the roster when training camp begins.
“He pairs really well with Jimmy, pairs really well with Demetrius,” Pace said. “We’re excited to take that position and make it a strength, and they all do different things.”
Nagy often calls tight end the most important position in his offense — besides the quarterback. Letting Kmet grow into the position — the hardest to learn at the NFL level, again, besides the quarterback — appears a solid short-term bet and even better long-term play.
Johnson should have the first crack at the starting cornerback spot opposite two-time Pro Bowl player Kyle Fuller. If healthy — and that seems a sizable if — he figures to trump third-year cornerback Kevin Toliver, a former undrafted free agent; Tre Roberson, a CFL standout who never has played a regular-season NFL game; and Artie Burns, a former first-round pick for the Steelers who played only 66 defensive snaps last year.
For Pace, the picks mark a return to normalcy. He didn’t trade up or back, or reach into the small-college ranks the way he did with Shaheen. He simply filled the two needs that were staring him in the face.
He hopes that in itself is the Bears’ feel-good story.