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Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly says Bears TE Cole Kmet will be ‘in line’ with NFL’s best

Brian Kelly coached Travis Kelce and other star tight ends and has no doubt Kmet will reach their level.

Cole Kmet had 43 catches for 515 yards and six touchdowns as a junior at Notre Dame.
Cole Kmet had 43 catches for 515 yards and six touchdowns as a junior at Notre Dame.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

Brian Kelly has produced some of the best tight ends in his three decades as a college coach, and he’s certain his newest NFL Draft pick will be just as good.

He believes the Bears landed a star by taking Cole Kmet in the second round of the draft last Friday, making him the highest-picked tight end. After what Kelly saw from Kmet the last three seasons at Notre Dame, he has big expectations of what he’ll do in the NFL.

“I’ve had Travis Kelce, Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, Durham Smythe — a number of tight ends that are doing exceedingly well in the NFL,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Cole Kmet will be in line with all of those guys.”

For the Bears’ sake, he better be.

The pressure is already high enough on Kmet without being compared to a star like Kelce. His new team is desperate for help at tight end after cutting Trey Burton and hoping pricey free agent Jimmy Graham still has at least one more decent season in him.

It is the most important non-quarterback position in coach Matt Nagy’s offense — “A lot of it goes through the tight end,” he said — and the Bears got a total of 46 catches, 416 yards and four touchdowns from their tight ends last season. Twenty-one individual tight ends exceeded that yardage total last season.

The only 1,000-yard tight end in franchise history was Mike Ditka in 1961, and since he left in 1967, the Bears have had just four seasons in which a tight end managed even 600 yards.

With that backdrop, the least surprising thing the Bears could’ve done in the draft was pounce on Kmet when their turn came at No. 43 overall.

While much of the national coverage seemed preoccupied by the Bears having 10 tight ends on the roster at the time, many of them will be gone when the season starts. Kmet figures to compete at the very top of the depth chart.

“They would not have drafted Cole Kmet if he was the 10th tight end,” Kelly said. “He clearly is an investment . . . You don’t make those kinds of investments unless you know what you’re getting, and what they’re getting is an athletic tight end that is going to impact their offense immediately.

“Having a lot of tight ends on your roster is one thing. Having Cole Kmet, you know, that’s another.”

The upside is tremendous, and Kelly emphasized that this will be Kmet’s first opportunity to truly zero in on improving as a football player. He starred in baseball and football at St. Viator in Arlington Heights, worked out for the White Sox ahead of the 2017 MLB Draft and continued playing both sports at Notre Dame.

He was elated, by the way, that he’ll get to stay close to home as he begins his NFL career.

“My whole family, we grew up Bears fans,” Kmet said. “So this is just unreal for us. It’s a huge dream come true.”

In addition to diverting time to baseball, Kmet played just 23 football games at Notre Dame because of a shoulder injury. He had 43 catches for 515 yards and six touchdowns in only 10 games last season.

“I’ve said this to a number of GMs and coaches that I talked to in the evaluation process: There [is] a lot of growth there still for him,” Kelly said. “Clearly his athletic ability shows itself, and his physicality.

“Route running, he’ll get a chance to work on that on a day-to-day basis. This is a full-time job now. He doesn’t have to worry about academics. He’ll be much better at route running. In-line blocking, the technique associated with combination blocks, working with the offensive line — all those areas, he’s going to be able to really elevate his technical game.”

Kmet is a long-term acquisition, but the pressing question is how much he will help the Bears in 2020. Tight end is one of the most difficult positions to adjust from college to the pros, and just 12 of the 140 tight ends drafted in the first three rounds over the last 30 years had 500 yards or more in their rookie season.

If Kmet progresses, though, he’ll get his chance. Graham is the only tight end certain to be on the Bears’ roster this season, and he and Kmet are compatible. Graham plays more of a split-out tight end, and Kmet has been an in-line player. The Bears are betting on the combination of a resurgence by Graham after three years in decline and a rapid acclimation by Kmet.

If either of those things happen, the Bears will be better at tight end than they were last season. If they get both, it’ll be a game changer.