Establishing Realistic Expectations for Cole Kmet

| May 13th, 2020

The Bears spent their first pick (43rd overall) on Cole Kmet, a big tight end from Notre Dame who has a chance to plug a Bears’ roster hole from day one.

It should be noted, however, that tight end is a position where conventional wisdom says it’s hard to make a big impact in your rookie season due to a steep learning curve. In order to establish realistic expectations for Kmet, let’s take a look at how comparable tight ends have fared in their first few years of the NFL.

In order to do so, I looked at all 18 tight ends drafted in the 2nd round between 2010-19. I tracked their playing time and statistical contributions on offense after extrapolating to a full 16 game season to normalize the data since several players missed games with injuries.

The full data can be seen here, but I’m just going to show the range of snaps played, targets earned, passes caught, and receiving yards, which can be seen in the table below.

Here you can see there’s quite a range of outcomes for these 18 rookies, but the median (or middle) tight end played 511 snaps (roughly half of a teams’ offensive snaps for the year), received 47 targets, and caught 33 of them for 311 yards. That then is a baseline expectation for Kmet in his rookie season, and it lines up roughly with the role that should be available for him to earn.

Jimmy Graham is slotted to be the starting U (receiving/slot TE), but Kmet is competing with Demetrius Harris to be the starting Y (in-line TE). Harris played about 45% of snaps in that role in Kansas City in 2016 and 2017. A recent comparison to this from the Reid offense would be Dallas Goedert in 2018, who played 523 snaps (all but 90 of them in-line), saw 44 targets, and caught 33 passes for 334 yards as the Y tight end to Zach Ertz playing the U.

The long and short of it is that you shouldn’t expect a huge impact from Kmet as a rookie, but he should be a meaningful contributor. His impact can be expected to grow, however, by 2021. Let’s look at the same table as above, only showing stats for those players in the 2nd year of their careers.

The sophomore jump for TEs is real.

By their second season, most TEs who are going to be good are producing like starters, as you can see by the median pass production being 71 targets, 48 catches, and 519 yards. This is roughly comparable to Trey Burton’s 2018 season (76 targets, 54 catches, 569 yards).

Notice, however, that the bottom TEs actually produce less as second year players than rookie. The bottom 25% in this study play fewer snaps and are less involved in the passing game, likely due to the fact that coaches are no longer forcing them in on the action just because they were highly drafted rookies. Think Adam Shaheen here; he set career highs (at least so far) in every one of these categories as a rookie.

Early Indicators…?

Overall, the career outcomes for second round tight ends are fairly solid.

Of the 16 who have played at least 2 NFL seasons (so excluding the two 2019 rookies), 9 had at least one season with 500+ receiving yards (again, thinking of Trey Burton’s 569 yards in 2018 as a rough baseline for a competent starting tight end). It’s a small sample size, but a roughly 50% chance of turning into a starter is pretty solid for round 2.

Is there anything in the rookie performance to suggest which direction a player is headed? A quick look at the stats (again extrapolated to a full 16 game season) makes it look like that might be the case, as you can see here. I loosely defined players with at least one 500+ yard season as future starters (an average of 17 TEs per season have had 500+ receiving yards in the last 5 years), and players without 1 500+ yard season as not future starters. The table below shows the average rookie production for the two groups.

Unsurprisingly, players with a better career outcome mostly show it as rookies. This got me wondering if there was some sort of production threshold for Kmet’s rookie season if he is likely to turn into a starting TE or not. Here’s what I found.

  • 400+ snaps: 9 of 9 future starters played at least 400 snaps in their rookie year, while only 3 of 7 not future starters did.
  • 40+ targets: 7 of 9 future starters earned at least 40 targets in their rookie year (at least when extrapolated to a full 16 games), while only 3 of 7 not future starters did.
  • With 6+ yards/target: of the 10 players who earned 40+ yards/target, all 7 future starters averaged at least 6 yards/target, while only 1 of 3 not future starters did.

When you combine those criteria, you get this: career outcomes for players who play at least 400 snaps, see at least 40 targets, and average at least 6.0 yards/target in their rookie year are quite good. 7 of 8 players who hit all of those criteria became starters, while only 2 of 8 who failed to did.

I should be very clear that there is nothing magical about those numbers. It’s just that recent history shows 2nd round picks who hit them as rookies typically have pretty good career outcomes, while those who do not are much less likely to succeed. To put it another way, which list would you rather Kmet’s rookie production puts him on?

To look at things from the other perspective, the three worst players on this list, by far, are Adam Shaheen, Gavin Escobar, and Troy Niklas. Every single one of them failed to even become a solid backup tight end in the NFL. They were also three of the four on the list to play less than 300 snaps, and the only three to get less than 20 targets in their rookie season. So if you’re looking for numbers you definitely want Kmet to avoid, that would be a good starting point.

Looking at the 2019 rookie 2nd round tight ends, we see 2 very different profiles.

  • Irv Smith: 612 snaps, 47 targets, 6.6 yards/target. Vikings fans should feel pretty good about the future of the tight end position.
  • Drew Sample: 192 snaps, 11 targets, 4.8 yards/target (extrapolated to 16 games, he went on IR with an injury after 9). Sample’s rookie production puts him firmly in Shaheen/Escobar/Niklas bust territory.

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