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Can Cole Kmet Be More Than a “Useful” Player?

| April 22nd, 2022

Chicago Bears TE Cole Kmet saw his production jump across the board in his 2021 sophomore campaign, as his targets, receptions, and receiving yards all more than doubled from his rookie year. This left him ranking among the top 20 NFL TEs in the main three receiving categories, as you can see in the table below.

Of course, those are all volume stats, and high volume does not necessarily mean that you are a top player. Chicago’s receiving options were extremely limited in 2021, and the former coaching staff had a vested interest in getting Kmet the ball to justify their second-round investment in him, so of course he saw a lot of balls thrown his way. But how effective was he with those targets?

In order to dig into that question, I’m going to take a closer look at Kmet’s underlying metrics to see how well he performed. This will be very similar to what I recently did with Darnell Mooney, the only other returning pass catcher on the Bears.


Man vs. Zone

Let’s start by looking at how Kmet did against man and zone coverages compared to his peers. I split the overall TE group based on how many targets players earned, and the sample broke down like this:

  • 50+ targets: 25 TEs fell in this group. With 32 NFL teams, this is more or less the starting TEs.
  • 20-49 targets: 33 TEs fell in this range, meaning these are generally the second TEs on a team.
  • Less than 20 targets: 64 players fit in here, so these are the depth TE on a team.

The table below shows how TEs in those groupings performed in a variety of metrics against both man (orange) and zone (blue) coverage. All stats are from Pro Football Focus (PFF).

A few thoughts:

  • Like we did with Darnell Mooney, it’s important to take the offense into consideration when evaluating Kmet’s stats against his peers. The Bears as a team ranked in the bottom five in the majority of passing categories, so it’s not really a surprise to see some of his efficiency stats looking low. For example, the Bears were about 4% lower than the NFL average in completion % (catch % here) and 0.4 yards below the NFL average in yards/attempt (yards/target here).
  • Given that context, Kmet served as a capable weapon against zone coverage. His catch percentage and yards/target mark are fairly solid, if unspectacular, though it’s worth noting his poor YAC (yards after catch) performance. Time will tell if that’s a scheme issue from last year (Andy Dalton and Justin Fields ranked 21st and 31st, respectively, in YAC/completion of the 33 QBs with 200+ passing attempts in 2021) or a Kmet issue, but it’s worth noting Mooney did not have the same YAC issues. Kmet’s average catch against zone is also a bit shorter down the field than most starting TEs, which is notable considering how Justin Fields had one of the deepest average passes in the NFL last year.
  • Kmet’s man metrics, on the other hand, are unquestionably poor. His catch rate was just fine, but his average catch against man was very short, indicating he was only able to produce against man coverage on dump-offs underneath. This is in line with the TE2 and depth TE group, not the starters. Kmet’s YAC here was also laughably bad, indicating he was unable to consistently break tackles and turn those dump-offs into more meaningful gains.

  • This man/zone split was not evident for Mooney, so I am tempted to chalk it up to a Kmet issue. He also struggled against man coverage in 2020, gaining only 25 yards on seven targets. That’s obviously a small size, but overall gives him 22 targets against man coverage so far in the NFL, with only 93 yards gained. That’s not good, to put it mildly.
  • There were six other TEs in 2021 with ten plus targets and less than five yards/target against man coverage: Tyler Conklin, Cameron Brate, Ricky Seals-Jones, Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox, and Juwan Johnson. Four of those six were second on their team in TE snaps last year, and only one of them (Conklin) played more than 650 snaps or topped 350 receiving yards. In other words, struggling against man coverage is mainly a problem we see with backup or rotational TEs, not high-level starters.
    • If you want a cause for optimism: three of the TEs in that group (Brate, Seals-Jones, and Doyle) have seen meaningful targets in at least four NFL seasons. Brate and Doyle have been fine against man for their careers if you look at their cumulative data (6.5 and 7.1 yards/target, respectively), while Seals-Jones has remained consistently poor against man coverage (4.7 yards/target for his career). Kmet’s general stiffness and consistent struggles against man coverage in both 2020 and 2021 make me think he’ll end up more like Seals-Jones than the other two, but we can hope that is not the case.
  • All in all, the man/zone splits suggest that Kmet’s volume numbers were a result of him being fed the ball quite a bit, but the short catches and struggles against man paint the profile of a backup TE playing starter snaps.


Targets by Depth

Next, I want to examine Kmet’s performance at different depths of the field. Once again, I’ll be using data from PFF, and they split the field into four different depths: behind the line of scrimmage, 0-9 yards past the line (short), 10-19 yards (medium), and 20+ yards downfield (deep).

The table below shows Kmet’s main stats at each depth and gives the spread of other NFL TEs for comparison. All ranks here will be comparing him only to his TE1 peers, so the 25 players who saw at least 50 targets in 2021. Any area where Kmet ranked in the top eight is highlighted in green, while areas where he ranked in the bottom eight are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Kmet didn’t see many targets behind the line of scrimmage, but otherwise had a fairly typical target spread to the other three depths. The behind the line passes are a very small sample size (five targets), but he did a good job of turning those screens into nice runs after the catch to pick up some solid yardage.
  • Kmet’s production in the short and medium areas was generally reasonable. It’s mostly below-average across the board, but that makes sense considering the QB and offensive issues that were not his fault.
  • Kmet really struggled with the deep balls though, as his catch rate, yards/target, yards/catch, and YAC/catch were all among the worst for NFL TEs in this group.
    • Unlike what we saw with Darnell Mooney, this doesn’t improve for Kmet when you only look at passes thrown from Justin Fields. PFF doesn’t let me parse this data by QB, but Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder does. It counts deep passes as anything 15 yards or more downfield, so it’s not exactly the same as PFF’s data set, but the Fields vs. Dalton/Foles split is fairly consistent on those deep balls:
      • From Fields: 4/8 (50%) for 90 yards (11.3 yards/target)
      • From Dalton/Foles: 1/2 (50%) for 20 yards (10.0 yards/target)
    • It’s a small sample to be sure, but this suggests Kmet’s production (or lack thereof) down the field is not QB-dependent. This is decidedly different than what we saw with Darnell Mooney, who looked quite good on deep passes when you removed the bad veteran QBs and only looked at his time with Fields.
      • You can increase the sample size a little by adding Kmet’s 2020 stats in. That gives him 13 deep targets (using the PFF definition of 20+ yards down the field), with four catches (31%) for 107 yards (8.2 yards/target). Nothing I can find suggests Kmet is any sort of deep threat down the field through two NFL seasons.

Explosive Plays

Now that we have the big-picture stuff sorted, I want to focus in on three specific areas that are important skill sets for a TE to have. The first is the ability to produce explosive plays, which are hugely important for overall offensive production. I count receptions that gain 20+ yards as explosive, and the table below shows how frequently Kmet produced them compared to his peers (areas in the bottom 8 are highlighted in red). From this point forward in the article, all stats are from the Game Play Finder, and all ranks and comparisons are relative to the 25 TEs with 50+ targets in 2021.

A few thoughts:

  • On the surface, Kmet appears to struggle producing explosive plays, but this is another area where breaking things up by QB might be helpful, because the change in explosiveness when Justin Fields was the QB vs. when anybody else was the QB was quite stark. Here’s how the data splits up for Kmet:
    • Fields: 52 targets, 5 explosive catches, 10.4 targets/explosive catch
    • Dalton/Foles: 41 targets, 2 explosive catches, 20.5 targets/explosive catch
  • When you only look at Fields playing, Kmet produced explosive plays at an average rate for starting TEs. Hopefully that can continue going forward.

Third and Fourth Down

Next, let’s look at how Kmet was used on third and fourth down, because it is important for a high-volume TE to show that they can be a reliable target to help move the chains. I’m not tracking yardage here, because all that really matters in this situation is producing a first down.

The table below shows how frequently and effectively Kmet was targeted on third and fourth down compared to his high-volume peers (50+ targets) in 2021. Areas where Kmet ranked in the bottom eight of the 25-player sample are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Kmet was targeted at around an average rate on third and fourth down but was the second worst TE in the group at producing first downs on both a per-target and per-catch basis. Yikes.
  • Just because I was curious, I once again split this data into Fields and Dalton/Foles at QB, just to see if there was a significant difference. In this case, there really wasn’t:
    • Fields to Kmet: 25% of targets on third and fourth down, 8% of targets and 20% of catches went for a first down.
    • Dalton/Foles to Kmet: 29% of targets on third and fourth down, 25% of targets and 33% of catches went for a first down.
  • Turning so few of his catches into first downs is puzzling, so I looked closer at the plays where he earned a pass target. It turns out nine of his 26 third and fourth down targets came with more than 15 yards needed to reach a first down, and eight of those attempts (including all six completions) were classified as “short” in the Pro Football Reference database, meaning they were less than 15 yards downfield and therefore short of the chains.
    • The Bears threw it 55 times on third or fourth and ten or longer in 2021, and Kmet saw 12 targets (22%). He caught nine of those balls (75%), but only produced one first down.
    • The Bears threw it 113 times on third or fourth and nine or less in 2021, and Kmet saw 13 targets (12%). He caught four of those balls (31%), producing three first downs.
  • This trend continues from Kmet’s rookie season in 2020, when only 8/44 (18%) targets came on third and fourth down, and half of those came needing 10+ yards for a first down (1 catch, 0 1st downs gained).
  • In other words, the Bears like to check it down to Kmet on third and long, but don’t trust going to him when they actually have a chance to pick up the first down. That’s a pretty stark indictment of how they view his receiving ability.

Red Zone

Finally, let’s take a look at how frequently and effectively Cole Kmet was targeted in the red zone. The table below shows his red zone stats, as well as how he compares to his 25 peers with 50+ targets. Areas where Kmet ranked in the bottom eight are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Once again, we see Kmet targeted at a near-average rate, but he is among the worst among his peers in terms of efficiency. This is an area where you think Kmet might excel, given that he has a large frame and can jump, but unfortunately, we don’t see that play out in reality.
    • It’s a small sample size of 12 targets but adding to it by including 2020 data doesn’t help. If we include his 2020 stats, Kmet is at 18 red zone targets, eight catches (44%), and four first downs or TDs (22% of targets, 50% of catches).
    • Looking only at passes from Fields doesn’t help either, as that parses out at eight targets, four catches (50%), and two first downs/TDs (25% of targets, 50% of catches).
  • No matter how you look at it, Kmet has been a poor target in the red zone through two years of his NFL career. Now that Jimmy Graham (who saw eight of his 23 targets in the red zone last year) is gone, I imagine Kmet will get a chance to change this narrative, but the evidence suggests that will likely not be good for the Bears.

Wrap-Up

So, what have we learned about Kmet today? Here are the main takeaways:

  • He has shown he can be productive against zone coverage but struggles mightily against man.
  • He struggles catching passes down the field, though he still managed to produce explosive plays at around an average level when Fields was his quarterback.
  • He is a complete non-factor on meaningful third downs, and struggles to produce in the red zone.

Unlike with Darnell Mooney, none of Kmet’s seeming problem areas improved when Justin Fields was the quarterback. All of them are also trends that were found in his rookie data from 2020 as well. This suggests that Kmet’s 2021 production is more a result of high volume in a bad offense than a solid player producing despite questions around him.

Given all of these red flags in his data, I would be very wary about counting on Kmet as a starting TE going forward. He has shown he can be a useful player, but barring drastic improvement, he seems to fit the profile of a quality TE2 more than a solid starter.

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