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Bears hope for resurgence at tight end with Jimmy Graham, Cole Kmet

It’s risky to bet on a veteran who has shown signs of decline and a rookie, but it’s a better position than the Bears were in last year.

Jimmy Graham showed significant signs of decline last season in Green Bay, but is determined to turn it around at age 33.
Jimmy Graham showed significant signs of decline last season in Green Bay, but is determined to turn it around at age 33.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

The Bears have no interest in urging patience or tempering enthusiasm about their curious plan at tight end. They’re so confident in Jimmy Graham’s bounce-back bid and second-round pick Cole Kmet’s early progress that they’re fine with expectations surging.

They’re even encouraging it.

In the first two days of practice, they were arguably the two most impressive offensive players. Graham’s prowess gives a flicker of optimism that he can still be one of the better tight ends in the league, and Kmet hasn’t looked like a rookie other than when the entire team pounced on him for a false start Tuesday.

The Bears have been hyping Kmet ever since they drafted him No. 43 overall out of Notre Dame this year, and general manager Ryan Pace declared, “We’re lucky to have him.”

Coach Matt Nagy followed that by raving all offseason about how quickly he picked up the playbook and how well he demonstrated that knowledge in meetings and walk-throughs.

And even though tight end is probably the most difficult position outside of quarterback for a player to make the jump from college to the pros, there’s been very little wait-and-see tone from the Bears when discussing Kmet.

“I would say Cole is on schedule — if not maybe a tick ahead of schedule,” tight ends coach Clancy Barone said Wednesday. “Not to make it sound too grand, but I have zero concerns about Cole Kmet.”

While Kmet tries to show he can hang, Graham is on a mission to prove can still hang. He said fizzling with the Packers last season, when he was benched, “lit a fire” in him to “dominate this league” again.

Graham was an All-Pro with the Saints in 2013 and made the Pro Bowl for the Sea-hawks in 2016 and ’17, but seems to be in decline. He had just 520 yards receiving in ’17 season and put up 636 for the Packers in ’18 and 447 last season.

It was Graham’s lowest production since his rookie year, though it still eclipsed the combined 46 catches, 416 yards and two touchdowns the Bears got from all of their tight ends last season.

Nonetheless, the Packers cut Graham in March, and the Bears turned heads by picking him up on a two-year, $16 million deal two weeks later. He’ll turn 34 during the upcoming season.

At the moment, however, he looks a bit younger.

“That’s been one of the great things to see so far,” pass game coordinator Dave Ragone said. “Obviously not a ton of practices so far, but to see what he’s able to do in terms of his energy, his competitiveness — You bring those type of players in and you understand once they’ve been in the building why they’ve been in certain places and why they’ve won.”

Some Zoom meetings and a couple of practices in August aren’t enough to dispel any concerns about Graham and Kmet, but it’s a good start. And it’s better than where the Bears stood a year ago. Remember that? They didn’t know if Trey Burton would ever get back, they were already well past seeing their error in drafting Adam Shaheen and the rest of the group was comprised of castoffs.

There’s definitely some risk in banking on Graham and Kmet, but it feels a lot better than their failed gamble last season.

“No slight, because I have great relationships with the past tight ends that have been there, but what this room provides . . . it’s different than what’s been here in terms of the measurables,” Ragone said. “You look at that tight end room in general . . . and you’ve got guys in that room who literally each bring something to the table. When you watch all these guys compete, you’re building a complete room.”