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Kmet concern: Rookie tight ends and early season play

There’s been a lot of talk about the lack of production and snaps for the Bears’ first 2020 draft pick. But is it time to panic?

NFL: SEP 20 Giants at Bears Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’ve seen a lot of concern over the last couple weeks about the production, or lack thereof, of Bears rookie tight end, Cole Kmet.

He’s only seeing the field less than a third of the time and has been targeted just three times and has but one catch for 12 yards. That’s not good for the Bears’ first draft pick. Since this is Chicago we’re talking about, with a tendency to botch high draft picks under Ryan Pace and be adverse to just about all offensive success, it has some screaming that Kmet is already a bust.

Why can’t the first selected tight end and the team’s highest draft pick see the field even half the time? Why isn’t he getting more looks? Is this a coaching failure or an evaluation failure?

It strikes me as odd, because when Kmet was drafted all I heard was that tight end is a position that often sees a difficult NFL transition. The expectation was to not hear much from a rookie.

Tight end is also not a position where historically there’s been a lot of breakout rookie stars. Kmet wasn’t projected to be a Rob Gronkowski or early-career Jimmy Graham. He’s not a “move” tight end. He’s more of the blocker and pass-catcher type. Think more Kyle Rudolph and less George Kittle.

Now, with that said, I examined the early contributions of a number of successful tight ends of the last decade and saw two things:

  1. Is it really difficult for a rookie tight end to make an early impact?
  2. What is a reasonable expectation for a rookie tight end’s statistical line?

I pulled the stats of several high profile tight ends around the league, both through five games, and then through the end of their rookie seasons, to come up with an average for tight ends that would be considered successful.

Does this mean that Kmet won’t be successful if he can’t hit these averages? No. It also doesn’t mean that he won’t still make an impact this year. Players develop at different rates and at different paces. I merely wanted to see what a decent rookie year for a good tight end might look like.

I would like to note that one of the top tight ends in the league, there’s one notable name missing, Travis Kelce. That’s because he missed his rookie season with a knee injury.

Players through 5 games

Player Targets Catches Yards Touchdowns
Player Targets Catches Yards Touchdowns
Greg Olsen (2007) 9 4 85 1
Jimmy Graham (2010) 1 0 0 0
George Kittle (2017) 23 17 166 1
Rob Gronkowski (2010) 8 7 86 2
Zach Ertz (2013) 11 7 150 0
TJ Hockenson (2019) 25 15 186 2
Kyle Rudolph (2011) 9 7 98 0
Dallas Goedert (2018) 14 12 106 1
Average 12.5 8.625 109.625 0.875

Kmet’s own stats (three targets, one catch, 12 yards, zero touchdowns) most closely matches that of now-teammate Jimmy Graham, who was slow to find a role with the Saints.

It’s kind of a scattershot, but the average line is roughly 12 targets, nine catches, 110 yards and one touchdown. Yes, Kmet is lagging behind a small sample size of rookie tight ends. But this is only a five game sample size.

What should the hope for Kmet’s stats look like come January?

Let’s look further down the road and see what an average rookie season looks like for a decent tight end:

Full Rookie Season stats

Player Games (Starts) Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Player Games (Starts) Targets Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Greg Olsen (2007) 14 (4) 66 39 391 2
Jimmy Graham (2010) 15 (5) 44 32 356 5
George Kittle (2017) 15 (7) 23 17 166 1
Rob Gronkowski (2010) 16 (11) 59 42 546 10
Zach Ertz (2013) 16 (3) 57 36 469 4
TJ Hockenson (2019) 12 (7) 59 32 367 2
Kyle Rudolph (2011) 15 (8) 39 26 249 3
Dallas Goedert (2018) 16 (8) 44 33 334 4
Average 14.875 (6.625) 48.875 32.125 359.75 3.875

The average stat line of 49 targets, 32 catches, 360 yards and four touchdowns isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Kmet. Yet. he isn’t seeing the field right now, but if he could average three catches a game for the rest of the year, that would amount to 32 receptions.

That’s just the average. If you look at a guy like T.J. Hockenson, he did all of his damage early and he missed a few games with an injury, but then didn’t do much over the latter half of the 2019 season. On the other side of proceedings, Graham did almost nothing early and still finished with pretty close to the average stat line of the group I pulled.

Don’t write off Kmet yet. After all, he’s’ now working with a new quarterback who spreads the ball around and is adjusting to the starting role. If the young tight end can learn the playbook and earn the trust of Nick Foles and Matt Nagy, then we’ll see more production.