- Editor's note: In the lead-up to training camp, NBC Sports Chicago will be breaking down eight players who can use the 2022 season to cement themselves as an integral piece of the Ryan Poles-Matt Eberflus rebuild. This is Part One of the Rebuilding Blocks series.
Following his junior season at Notre Dame, Cole Kmet was seen as a near-elite tight end prospect with the route-running ability and long-stride ability to become a plus-tight end in the NFL.
The Bears drafted Kmet in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, believing the local product would give them a second-level threat at the tight end position.
Things haven't gone as planned.
The combination of a revolving door at quarterback and shoddy offensive game planning from Matt Nagy has seen Kmet flounder during his first two NFL seasons.
After catching 28 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns during his rookie season, Kmet nabbed 60 passes for 612 yards last year. However, Kmet failed to find the end zone during his sophomore season as his chemistry with quarterback Justin Fields lagged behind that of Darnell Mooney and tight end Jesse James.
While Kmet hasn't reached the potential many envisioned for him coming out of Notre Dame, the 23-year-old has a new lease on his NFL life with the Bears, thanks to new head coach Matt Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.
Getsy is installing a wide-zone offense from the Shanahan tree that we expect will also have Kubiak and LaFleur influences.
While Nagy and his staff never found a way to utilize Kmet properly, the Shanahan offense helped make George Kittle a star and has seen Robert Tonyan excel in Green Bay.
Kmet views the new offense as one that can help him start to blossom in Year 3.
"You kind of see how the tight ends involve in the run scheme and off of that, the play-action movements and all those type of things can be really advantageous for tight ends," Kmet said during OTAs. "You see guys around the league in similar offenses, whether it was Tonyan a couple years back with Green Bay. Or you look at what George has done in San Francisco. You even look at some things with Minnesota and how they've used tight ends the past five years or so. You see those things and you can see how tight ends can get really involved in this offense."
It's the leap Tonyan took in Matt LaFleur and Getsy's offense that should give Kmet and the Bears hope for bigger things from the third-year tight end.
Tonyan caught just four passes for 77 yards during his rookie season in 2018. His production ticked up in LaFleur's first season in Green Bay in 2019 but exploded in 2020, where Tonyan caught 52 passes for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Having Aaron Rodgers obviously played a role in Tonyan's rise, but the system also creates opportunities for tight ends to make big plays down the field. That's an area Kmet is well-suited to take advantage of, given his skill set.
One look at the Bears' current roster shows why Kmet can be a big part of Eberflus and Poles' vision.
Outside of Darnell Mooney, the offensive arsenal is relatively empty. While that doesn't bode well for the win-loss record in 2022, it should provide Kmet with ample opportunity to show should put in the "keep" pile as Pole and Eberflus evaluate the roster.
With defenses likely to focus their attention on Mooney, Kmet can become a trusted weapon for Fields. The 2018 49ers had an offensive arsenal that included Marquise Goodwin, Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, and Pierre Garcon. None of them topped 500 yards that season.
But Kittle, with Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard playing in 13 of the 16 games, caught 88 passes for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns. That team went 4-12.
Kittle is the best tight end in football, so it's not reasonable to expect that level of production from Kmet this fall. But it shows how this offense creates opportunities for skilled tight ends like Kmet can take advantage of as long as their run-blocking is up to par.
That's where Kmet has to deliver. In the wide-zone offense, the tight end must be an adequate run blocker to set up the leak action that often leads to chunk plays down the field.
To win in the modern NFL, you need multiple playmakers out wide and preferably a talented tight end who can be relied on in the red zone and on third down.
The last three Super Bowls have featured Kittle, Travis Kelce, Rob Gronkowski, and Tyler Higbee, who many compared Kmet to during the draft. That's not a coincidence.
A pass-catching tight end who is a second-level threat is vital to the modern offense, especially the wide-zone scheme Getsy is installing.
This is a make-or-break season for Kmet. The Bears have given him a gift with the hire of Getsy and the installation of a scheme that should provide him many opportunities to show off his pass-catching prowess.
If he can take advantage of it, the Bears could very well end the 2022 season with a long-term answer at tight end. If not, the Bears will have to add tight end to their offseason wish list.