The Bears’ season only wrapped up last month, but tight end Cole Kmet finds himself itching to get back into action.
“[My offseason’s] been good, man,” Kmet told Windy City Gridiron. “[I’m] getting a little bit bored now, but it’s been good.”
The 2020 second-round pick has been working to keep himself busy with the regular season in the books, and among his endeavors this offseason has been working with Panini, the trading card company that has been shipping out cards of many of the world’s best athletes for decades.
“With Panini, we were just kind of down at Dallas signing some cards, doing some memorabilia stuff along with some media shoots and whatnot,” Kmet said. “It was a good time, signing all those cards. It was a little tiring, but it was good, and we had a lot of fun with it.”
Kmet is one of the rookies that Panini is hosting as they finish their 2020 Rookie Cards. The deal is an extension of a relationship Panini originally established with several members of this year’s rookie class prior to the draft. The partnership will continue throughout each of their careers.
“My dad was a big baseball card collector, that’s kind of what I got into,” he explained. “As I was growing up, that’s when football cards started to take off a little bit, me and my brother got into it more so. Baseball was my thing for a little while, then I started picking up some more football [cards]. That’s what I was into when I was younger.”
Growing up collecting trading cards, seeing himself on a card was an exhilarating experience for the Notre Dame alumnus.
“Yeah, that was pretty cool,” he commented on seeing his likeness on a trading card. “I grew up collecting cards my whole life, so to be able to see myself on a card was pretty special and really cool. It’s been awesome. I think that was the first time I was really kind of like, ‘wow, I made it to the NFL’...that was awesome.”
Kmet experienced plenty of humbling moments in his rookie year. While his season was pretty solid given the struggles that many tight ends face upon entering the NFL, he had his fair share of moments that seemed surreal to him in his first season in the league. Seeing his own trading card served as a “welcome to the NFL” experience for him, but it really set in once he got to training camp.
“I think, for me, it was in camp,” Kmet explained. “When I was going up against—I look up, I was trying to do a cut-off block, and I look up and it’s Khalil Mack that I had to go cut off. I think that, for me, was kind of like, ‘holy cow, this is real now’. That was my moment that came for me, even before we started games.”
In his first season with the Bears, Kmet finished with 28 receptions, 243 yards and 2 touchdowns. He finished sixth on the team in both receiving yards and receptions, and he also led all rookie tight ends in the NFL in both categories. His two touchdowns trailed only Cleveland’s Harrison Bryant among rookies, who had three.
When asked about his performance in 2020, Kmet mentioned that he feels content with how he performed, but he looks to build upon it and improve in 2021.
“I feel really good about it,” he stated. “I think it was a slow start in terms of the playing time, but that was just the process of being a rookie. The coaches wanted to ease me into things, and I totally get that. It was a little slow to start, which was totally fine. As I got more playing time, I think I showed why I belong on this level and what I can do. I’m excited to take what I did at the end of this year and bring that into Year 2.”
Kmet admittedly did get off to a slow start to the year, catching just one pass in the first five weeks of the season and not playing more than 34 percent of offensive snaps in a single game during that span. He was able to play a bigger role in the Bears’ offense in the second half of the year, though, catching at least one pass in each of the last eight games of the year.
In the final six weeks of the 2020 season, Kmet caught 23 passes for 165 yards and a touchdowns. If that pace stretched out over 16 weeks, he would have had 61 catches and 440 yards. For reference, only seven tight ends in the NFL caught more than 61 passes in 2020.
“I think it was just more playing experience [than anything else],” Kmet said about his late-season hot streak. “As you continue to play more and get more reps, you just get more comfortable, and I think that showed. With what we were doing on offense, I think that helped me out, as well: being able to go in-line and also being able to move around and go in motion all helped me out. It was beneficial for my game. I think, just in terms of being more comfortable and learning the NFL game is what helped me out near the end of the year.”
Part of Kmet’s development as a player can be attributed to Bears teammate Jimmy Graham. The five-time Pro Bowler split time at the tight end position with Kmet, and some of the pointers that Graham gave helped the rookie become a better football player.
“Jimmy’s taught me a lot,” Kmet responded. “In terms of body type, we’re pretty similar. Jimmy’s been able to teach me a lot about how to use my body...I learned a lot from him and was glad to have him as a teammate in Year 1.”
Kmet’s rookie performance is perhaps even more impressive considering the instability that took part at the Bears’ quarterback position. With Mitchell Trubisky starting in nine games and Nick Foles starting in seven, such movement at an important position can be difficult for a team’s players.
When discussing the moves that the Bears made at quarterback, Kmet noted that it proved to be difficult to adjust to going from Trubisky to Foles, then going back to Trubisky. However, he was able to adapt, realize the preferences of each quarterback, and make the most of his situation.
“Each quarterback likes something different,” Kmet explained. “One guy’s favorite route might not be the other’s. That’s just something you have to adapt to and learn how to do. Each guy throws a different ball, so you have to be able to know how to catch a guy’s certain ball, how it’s going to move down the field. Those are all things you got to take into account and learn from. That is what it was, obviously, it’s tough as a rookie adapting to it, but I thought I did a good job with it. That’s just kind of the situation that was dealt this year.”
Despite such instability at the quarterback position, the Bears were able to make it into the playoffs at 8-8. Sliding in as the NFC’s seventh seed in the first season of a 14-team postseason, they made an appearance in the Wild Card round. They traveled to New Orleans to take on the Saints, and while the Bears fell 21-9 on the road, Kmet noted that making the playoffs in his first season was still a valuable learning experience, even if the end result wasn’t what he desired.
“[Playing in the playoffs] was pretty insane,” he responded. “Going up against a legend like Drew Brees in the dome in New Orleans was pretty cool. It was just really special. That’s a cool place to play, and obviously against a franchise like that was pretty awesome. Obviously, we didn’t get the result we wanted, but I was able to get a lot of learning experiences from that situation.”
With a playoff appearance—and loss—in his rearview mirror, Kmet is looking forward to the 2021 season. After a short time off to reset, he is now getting back into the swing of things, working out and trying hard to become an even more capable player for the Bears’ offense in his second year in the NFL.
“I took some time off, obviously,” he said. “I went down to Florida for a little bit, just kind of hung out. I got back and I just started working out this past week and just continued doing that, getting my body right still from the season and keep excelling from this point on. We’ll see what happens with these offseason programs and what the NFL decides to do. I can only control what I can control. I’m just going to keep working out, staying in shape, and keep pushing myself so I can have a great Year 2.”
While he doesn’t have any concrete goals in terms of statistics he wants to reach in 2021, he does have a few aspects of his game in which he wants to see considerable improvement going forward.
“Obviously, you want to look at numbers, but that’s also hard to control in some situations,” he noted. “For me, it’s just becoming a more prolific pass-catcher in terms of route running and all the nuances of that, and continue to improve my strength for in-line blocking. I’m looking forward to continuing to improve on it and becoming a better player this upcoming year.”
As he heads into his second season with the Bears, Kmet is excited to get back onto the field and, hopefully, put out a quality product for Chicago fans in 2021.
“Be optimistic going into this next year,” he said to Bears fans. “I was there once, and I still am, as a Bears fan. You want to win, and you want to win now. The expectations are high, and that’s a good thing. Keep those expectations high as we go into this next year. We’re all looking forward to it, we’re all working hard, and we’re looking forward for this upcoming season.”