2020 Bears training camp preview: Will Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham be enough?


Everyone knows that the Bears' tight end situation was a mess in 2019, but just how messy was it? Here's a fun comparison that puts things in perspective:

Player A: 46 receptions, 416 receiving yards, 9.7 yards per reception, 2 touchdowns. 
Playe– Oh also, quick note: that's not actually one player – it's six. Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen, Jesper Horsted, J.P. Holtz, Ben Braunecker, and Eric Saubert, to be specific. Those are the combined stats of every tight end that caught a pass for the Bears last year. 

*That's* how bad it was. Given how hard Chicago was sold on tight ends being the key to unlocking Nagy's offense – you remember, the thing they hired him for – it's hard to blame Bears fans for feeling personally insulted. None of those six players even show up on Football Outsiders' Tight Ends leaderboards

So, this offseason, things changed. Burton was released and Shaheen may not be far behind. Cole Kmet was drafted and Jimmy Graham was paid. If you squint hard enough, you can almost see Nick Foles (or Mitch!) tearing up red zone defenses with mismatches that Nagy has been waiting two years for. But how realistic is that actually? 

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Kmet, the first tight end taken in the 2020 Draft, is an undeniably fun prospect. An Arlington Heights native that played at Notre Dame?! It's like a Chicago media member made him in a lab. He's a good player, too: he finished his time in South Bend with 60 catches, 691 yards (11.5 YPC) and 6 touchdowns. Our own resident draft expert Bryan Perez put it best, saying he "is everything NFL teams look for in a tight end prospect. A well-built 6-6, 262 pounds, Kmet has the frame, mass and strength to be a three-down player at the position assuming he becomes more technically sound as a run blocker."

That's the thing with Kmet, though. He's still a project. Perez goes on to say that his "biggest issue is his run blocking, where he doesn't play up to his size or physical dimensions. He'll need to be coached up in this area of his game ..." and that he still ultimately projects as a starter. Not being able to run block is obviously going to limit his snaps – it's not like the Bears can afford to get much worse running the ball, either. There's also the fact that, for the better part of the last two decades, only two rookie tight ends have had more than 600 receiving yards. The modern tight end basically redshirts in his first NFL season. The Bears don't have the luxury of affording that to Kmet. They aren't asking for the impossible, just the improbable. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, at least in terms of reliability, falls Jimmy Graham. The Bears know what they're getting from Graham, who hasn't missed a game in seven of his 10 NFL seasons. The last time Graham didn't play in all 16 games was 2011, when a knee injury put him in IR in late November. The entire durability narrative can dissolve in exactly one (1) snap, but Graham's about as safe a bet as the NFL gives you. 

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The problem (put delicately) is that no one's really sure how good Jimmy Graham is anymore. He's coming off the worst season he's had since his rookie year (see: above) and the numbers aren't exactly trending in an encouraging direction. He'll turn 34 this season and didn't put very much on tape during his two years in Green Bay. He's an intriguing red zone player, but so was Adam Shaheen. 

The objective truth is that the Bears improved at tight end this offseason. (Demetrius Harris could be fun!) Given where they ended 2019, it'd be prosecutable malpractice not to. But ultimately, they're relying on their rookie to be an impact player, and a former impact player to significantly turn back the clock. So yeah, they improved their situation. But really ask yourself: did they fix it?

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