Hoge's 10 Bears Things: Cole Kmet, ‘The Natural,' and 2020 NFL Draft conclusions


“My comp for him was Aaron Judge.”

That’s who the Chicago Bears drafted at No. 43 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft on Friday night.

Then there’s the four-star recruit out of Fresno, California who earned his college degree in 2.5 years. And the Dallas-area kid whose measurables look identical to another NFL star drafted in almost the exact same spot four years ago.

There’s also the undrafted player you need to know. And the quarterback who got away. And a lot more, too.

The post-draft “10 Bears Things” is always my favorite of the year. After three days of phone calls and text messages, the 2020 version has more information than ever before. Let’s jump right in:

1. “He’s our version of The Natural. He could do anything.” That was the message J.J. Lally recorded when Cole Kmet’s mother, Kandace, requested a video to be included in the planned celebration for her son when he officially got drafted into the NFL. With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping draft prospects at home in small celebrations this year, Kandace Kmet had to get creative. Lally, the Chicago White Sox Midwest area scout that hitched his wagon to Kmet in 2017, was honored to be included.

“I’ve never been around a better kid,” Lally told NBC Sports Chicago. “This kid is mature. His work ethic is second-to-none. He’s a very smart kid. Very well spoken.”

Like Kmet’s family, Lally was hoping the Chicago Bears would draft the Lake Barrington native who starred in football and baseball at St. Viator High School. He knew the Bears needed a tight end and had two second round picks. And although he was unable to bring Kmet to the White Sox three years ago, the Notre Dame tight end joining the Bears was a pretty good consolation prize.

“I tried everything in my power to make him a White Sox,” Lally said. “Didn’t happen.”

But it almost did.

The story goes like this: Because Kmet committed to Notre Dame so early, most of the Major League Baseball scouting community had backed off Kmet as a baseball prospect, essentially assuming he was headed to South Bend to play football. But Lally went to look at him anyway.

“He had some real upside with the bat. Raw power. Something you can’t teach. But he wasn’t a slam dunk,” the scout said.

The White Sox ended up bringing Kmet to Guaranteed Rate Field for a pre-draft workout in front of a group that included Hall-of-Famer slugger Jim Thome, now a special assistant to the general manager for the White Sox.

“He put on a show,” Lally said. “Jim Thome was thoroughly impressed. He was jaw-dropping. He hit some really big home runs at our ballpark.”

The workout resulted in serious discussions about drafting Kmet in the 2017 MLB Amateur Draft. Lally had him slotted as a fifth-round pick, despite an extremely flattering player comparison that suggested even more upside as a baseball player.

“My comp for him was Aaron Judge. That’s who he looked like,” Lally said. “Physically, I thought he was going to be a corner outfielder with that kind of power. But he was raw. He was going to be a project.”

There was also no guarantee Kmet would stick with baseball, which was why he wasn't slotted higher. The White Sox came up with a plan for Kmet to play football at Notre Dame while also playing baseball in the minors during the summer. Russell Wilson once did that when he was North Carolina State’s quarterback and a fourth-round pick for the Colorado Rockies. He eventually chose football and it's worked out pretty well for him.

Kmet ended up turning down the opportunity to play professional baseball and instead went to Notre Dame to play both sports. While Lally thought he could be a corner outfielder, Kmet went to South Bend and became their closer, which is why he feels like the kid can do anything.

“I liked him as a hitter, and as a hobby he went and closed for the Notre Dame baseball team,” Lally said with a laugh.

Now Kmet is an NFL tight end.

“This guy is going to be one hell of a tight end. He’s an amazing athlete,” Lally said. “I would bet anything that he’s going to take that offense to the next level.”

That’s high praise, even from a baseball scout. But Lally knows Kmet inside and out. Scouts research every detail about a prospect and when they vouch for a player, they put their reputation on the line. That’s the same for football and baseball.

“Anybody you talk to, everybody in the world loved this guy. He was the All-American boy. His makeup is special," Lally said. “This kid is as good as it gets. I would have loved to hitch my wagon to his. That’s what we do when we draft a kid – his name and mine are synonymous for the rest of our careers. I would have been honored to draft him and put my name with his.”

So you can understand why the Bears love Kmet too. No one at Notre Dame had a bad thing to say about him. And as a player, he’s polished enough to make an immediate impact in the passing game, while providing upside as a blocker now that he’s concentrating fully on football.

The part of Lally’s scouting report that translates directly to football goes like this: “He’s a mentally tough kid. He’s an athletic kid … He’s not a real emotional roller coaster. He’s very even keeled. He’s the kind of guy where he’ll hit a three-run home run, he’ll shake all the guys’ hands, and the next time he’ll strike out and you won’t see any different emotion from him.”

So while Aaron Judge might be Kmet’s baseball comparison, his football comp is more like Kyle Rudolph. It might not sound as glamorous, but Rudolph is entering his 10th season with the Vikings and is a two-time Pro Bowler with 47 career touchdown catches. He’s also a team captain and was Minnesota’s 2019 Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee. He's one of the most consistent, dependable players in the league.

Oh, and Rudolph was also drafted with the No. 43 overall pick in the second round in 2011. You better believe the Bears would take that kind of career from Kmet.

As for Lally, he’ll continue to remain close to the family and enjoy Kmet’s football career as a fan.

“He was built to play baseball,” Lally said. “But obviously he was also built to play football.”

2. Jaylon Johnson’s shoulder issues are a little overblown. The first torn labrum happened in high school and had to be re-operated on after his freshman year at Utah, but it has not been an issue ever since. The other shoulder was injured this past season and the Bears’ No. 50 overall pick put the surgery off until after the NFL Combine.

The important thing here is this: Johnson only missed two games in college and they were both non-essential bowl games. He missed the 2017 Heart of Dallas bowl to get the first shoulder right, giving him a jump on 2018, and then he skipped last year’s bowl game to get ready for the draft. In both seasons, he played through the injuries – which actually helped his draft grades. The cornerback started 27 games in a row.

Because of the March surgery, any team drafting Johnson knew he would miss offseason practices, but now that there aren’t any offseason practices, it hardly matters. The plan all along was for Johnson to be ready for Week 1.

Some might label this a risky pick for the Bears because of the shoulders, but the consensus I heard over the weekend is that Johnson was one of the safer picks in the draft because of his makeup. Beyond the physical attributes – the instincts, awareness and ball skills – Johnson is a focused, mature workhorse. And yet he just turned 21 last week. Johnson was a big-time recruit coming out of Fresno, Calif. and he always had it in his mind to graduate in 2.5 years before declaring for the draft. That meant his graduation ceremony occurred last fall – during the football season. According to one story I heard over the weekend, Johnson was at the Utes’ practice facility going through position drills just an hour before he walked and accepted his diploma with a 3.5 GPA.

Meanwhile, on the field, he quickly became the No. 1 cornerback opposing teams prepared for. Former Northwestern and current Dallas Cowboys quarterback Clayton Thorson faced Johnson in the 2018 Holiday Bowl and remembers him well.

“He had really good size. Really good in man coverage,” Thorson told NBC Sports Chicago. “Physical player. Had a knack for getting the ball. I believe he had four interceptions going into our game against him. We had a lot of respect for him.”

Thorson largely avoided Johnson in that game, which wasn’t easy to do considering Utah had an outstanding defense across the board. The Utes had six players drafted over the weekend. Fortunately for the Bears, Johnson is the best of the bunch.

3. Let’s play a quick “blind resume” game:

6-foot-3, 261 lbs., Arm length: 33 7/8 inches – Drafted: 5th round, No. 146 overall in 2016

6-foot-3 3/8, 261 lbs., Arm length: 33 7/8 inches – Drafted: 5th round, No. 155 overall in 2020

The first player is Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon. The second player is new Chicago Bears outside linebacker Trevis Gipson.

That’s the comp. And that would be the ideal player the Bears drafted when they traded up in Saturday’s fifth round to grab Gipson.

The big difference is that Judon was a true pass rusher at Grand Valley State, so he amassed 20 sacks in his final year in college. Gipson was more of a five-technique in Tulsa’s three-down front, but he still managed eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2019.

The Bears see Gipson more as an edge rusher, similar to the role Judon has fulfilled in Baltimore. Judon didn’t start as a rookie, needing a year to develop, but still played in 14 games, tallying four sacks. But he now has 28.5 career sacks in four seasons, including 9.5 in 2019, earning the franchise tag from the Ravens in March.

And before you dismiss the Judon comparison, just remember Pace’s track record in the fifth round of the draft…

4. Pace came into this draft batting a ridiculous .750 in the fifth round. That seems relevant when you consider his decision to trade up twice Saturday, resulting in three fifth round picks.

Coming into this year, Pace had made four fifth round selections in five drafts. Those picks resulted in Adrian Amos, Jordan Howard, Jordan Morgan and Bilal Nichols. Amos was a four-year starter who eventually turned into a fourth-round compensatory pick that was traded to Jacksonville for Nick Foles. Jordan Howard was a three-year starter who was traded to Philadelphia for a sixth-round pick (more on that in a second). Morgan never played a snap for the Bears, while Nichols is currently a starter on the defensive line.

Not bad.

Bears fans seem to get anxious with Pace’s habit of trading up in the draft. Just know that if you’re trading up without giving up the current year’s pick in the same round, then you either must give up a future pick in the next highest round (i.e. the Bears trading a 2021 fourth round pick to the Vikings for Gipson in the fifth round) or multiple later-round selections in the same draft (i.e. trading two sixth rounders to Philadelphia in exchange for the Eagles’ fifth rounder this year). The Bears ended up doing both. As Pace said Saturday night, they had a cloud of players they liked in that fifth round, but they only had one pick. Generally, quick contributors can still be found in the fifth round, while the sixth and seventh rounds are reserved for more long-term developmental players. Given Pace’s track record in the fifth round, it’s hard to criticize his effort to turn one fifth round pick into three.

But they lost next year’s fourth rounder. Sure, but what if they had a fourth-round grade on Gipson? Typically, teams only trade up for players they believe are being undervalued at that point in the draft. The Bears didn’t have a fourth round pick this year, but they may feel like they pulled a fourth-rounder out of the draft, even if they had to use next year’s pick to do so. Looking at it that way, they just used the pick a year early, which was the same logic that was applied when the Bears traded a 2019 second-round pick to draft wide receiver Anthony Miller in the 2018 second round. Plus, the Bears expect to receive multiple compensatory selections in next year's draft.

5. The first time I heard of Darnell Mooney was Wednesday. Doing last minute draft prep, the name came up in a phone conversation. I wrote down “MOONEY” in my notebook and then honestly forgot about it. Then Friday night – actually, it was probably Saturday morning by then – I went through my notes and remembered I was going to check out this wide receiver from Tulane before Saturday’s fourth round got underway. The first play I saw – I think it was against Army or Navy – Mooney was lined up in the slot against a nickel corner playing 8 or 9 yards off the line of scrimmage. At the snap, that poor nickel got caught looking in the backfield for just a split second. By the time he turned his eyes back to his man, Mooney was 5 yards past him. Gone. Touchdown.

It took one play for me to realize Mooney was a Matt Nagy guy.

It was just a gut feeling, but that led to a tweet Saturday morning calling Mooney a sleeper to watch. Hours later, he was a Bear, as -- (it’s payoff time) -- Pace packaged that Jordan Howard pick and sent it back to Philly to move up. By Saturday night, my Nagy hunch was confirmed.

“It’s pretty evident to see there are teams in this league right now that are making that a focus in regard to trying to get some speed at the wide receiver position,” Nagy said. “For us, that’s one big-time element that Darnell brings to our play style. We thought that was important. We wanted to come away with that element somewhere. We love the value there of what he’s going to bring. Not only does he have the speed, but here’s a kid that’s an exceptional route runner. He has snap at the top of his routes. He has a great feel … We’re excited to see what he can do.”

So here’s another hunch: Mooney is going to get on the field quickly in Nagy’s offense.

6. The Bears are putting a lot of faith in new offensive line coach Juan Castillo.

“I think what’s a little understated is the addition of Juan Castillo and what he’s going to bring to the table,” Pace said. “We feel good there.”

That answer came after the GM was asked if he feels like he’s done enough to help the offensive line and the Bears’ 27th ranked rushing attack in 2019. Pace mentioned the free agent additions of Germain Ifedi, who will kick inside to guard, and Jason Spriggs, who the Bears liked coming out of Indiana. Both are higher draft selections who haven’t worked out yet, but perhaps a change of scenery with a new position coach will change things.

Pace also mentioned Castillo’s proven track record of developing late-round draft picks. The Bears took two offensive linemen – Colorado’s Arlington Hambright and Tennessee State’s Lachavious Simmons – with back-to-back picks in the seventh round.

Indeed, Castillo has had success with late-round players. Jamal Jackson was an undrafted free agent in 2003 who became the Eagles’ starting center for six years before Castillo moved to defensive coordinator and Jason Kelce joined the team. The Eagles’ 2004 Super Bowl team had two undrafted free agents, Artis Hicks and Hank Fraley, starting on their offensive line under Castillo’s watch. More recently, Ryan Jensen was drafted by the Ravens in the sixth round in 2013 when Castillo was in Baltimore. Jensen spent a few years developing before eventually becoming a starter for the Ravens and getting a huge pay day from the Buccaneers in free agency.

None of this means Hambright or Simmons will eventually become NFL starters, but the Bears do believe they have the right coaching in place to develop these guys. Hambright’s athleticism allowed him to be successful at left tackle in the Pac 12, even though he was undersized at the position. The early word on Simmons is that he’s a well-liked teammate who is obsessed with his craft and plays with a mean-streak, which the Bears need.

7. One undrafted free agent to watch is Florida Atlantic linebacker Rashad Smith. The Bears could use extra depth at the inside linebacker position after losing Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis in free agency. Smith is 6-foot-1, 217 pounds and played in the East-West Shrine Game in January.

One of the neat things about the East-West Shrine Game is that instead of having two NFL teams coach the All-Star event like the Senior Bowl, they allow a bunch of young, up-and-coming coaches from around the league to get some experience coaching in higher-level positions. For the Bears, defensive quality control coach Ronnell Williams coached the linebackers at the East-West Shrine Game. That means he got a full week coaching Smith, who joins the team at a position where there could be an opening to make the roster. Every year, you can count on one or two undrafted free agents making an impact. Smith is one to watch.

8. The Bears didn’t end up with a quarterback, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t target one. According to Michael Gehlken of The Dallas Morning News, the Bears were eying James Madison quarterback Ben DiNucci as a free agent, but the Cowboys drafted him in the seventh round at No. 231 overall. That was four picks after the Bears took Hambright and Simmons, but it stands to reason the Bears would have had a good chance of signing DiNucci because quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo also played the position at James Madison. Remember, a lot of times seventh round picks are used on players teams want but aren’t sure can sign as a free agent. That may have been the case with the Cowboys selecting DiNucci.

9. Here is my favorite “value” pick in each round of the 2020 NFL Draft:

1st round, No. 17: WR CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys – I can’t imagine the Cowboys thought the Oklahoma wideout would still be there and they get a dynamic receiver to pair with Amari Cooper.

2nd round, No. 41: RB Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts – The mileage and fumbling issues hurt Taylor, but the Wisconsin back is a first-round talent that tested off the charts at the Combine. The thought of Taylor running behind Quenton Nelson has me drooling.

3rd round, No. 69: OG Damien Lewis, Seattle Seahawks – Lewis first caught my eye at the Senior Bowl, and the more I watched his tape, I actually liked him more than his teammate at LSU, Lloyd Cushenberry. Cushenberry was more decorated but ended up going 14 picks later.

4th round, No. 136: TE Brycen Hopkins, Los Angeles Rams – Hopkins had way too many concentration drops, but they weren’t due to poor hands. He can pluck the ball and has the ability to separate at the next level. It won’t surprise me at all if the Purdue tight end becomes a popular fantasy football player.

5th round, No. 166: WR Quintez Cephus, Detroit Lions – Cephus fell because he ran poorly at the Combine, but this is a classic case of a player who plays better than he tests. He’ll catch a touchdown or two that annoy Bears fans.

6th round, No. 210: OT Prince Tega Wanogho, Philadelphia Eagles – Injury concerns pushed the Auburn tackle way down draft boards, but if he can get past those issues, we’re talking about a starting left tackle in the NFL. I’d take that chance in the sixth round.

7th round, No. 220: WR K.J. Hill, Los Angeles Chargers – Hill doesn’t quite have the same upside as his former Ohio State teammate, Terry McLaurin, but he’s similar in that neither player’s tape was respected enough. You can take chances on developmental guys in the seventh round, but the Chargers got an actual player who can provide snaps as a rookie.

10. Final thoughts:

- The Vikings were one of the biggest winners of the draft – and it was an extremely important draft for GM Rick Spielman. He’s essentially doing a quick rebuild on the fly and I thought with a good draft, the Vikings could be back atop the NFC North by 2021. With a bad draft, everyone could be fired. Well, their draft went so well that they should be tough competitors for the Bears in 2020. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson and cornerback Jeff Gladney are immediate starters. Offensive lineman Ezra Cleveland has a chance to start quickly too. D.J. Wonnum adds good depth behind an underrated pass rushing unit that can stomach the loss of Everson Griffen, who may come back anyway. Seventh rounder Kenny Willekes was a good pick too. I don’t know how the Vikings were planning on fitting Trent Williams under the salary cap in a trade, but the Bears are fortunate he landed in San Francisco instead. Quite a weekend for the Vikings.

- As much as I think the Lions needed to make a franchise-altering move at quarterback, I do like their draft haul. Cornerback Jeff Okudah, running back De’Andre Swift, edge rusher Julian Okwara and center Jonah Jackson are all really good players. Jackson could be a quick starter on the offensive line. And I already mentioned Cephus. The Lions’ roster isn’t bad. I’m just not sold that team can get to the playoffs with its current head coach.

- The Packers’ draft was weird. I defended the Jordan Love pick, partially because I predicted it, but I thought they reached with running back AJ Dillon in the second round. Instead of fulfilling needs, they added to their two strongest positions in the first two rounds. I’m OK with that at quarterback, but running back? Josiah Deguara will be a solid tight end, but nine draft picks and no wide receivers? I feel bad for Danica Patrick right now.

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