A Tight Look at the 2023 Tight Ends, Part I: Total Usage & Man v. Zone

| June 12th, 2023

All of a sudden, the Bears’ TE room looks fairly stacked, as they return Cole Kmet – who led the team in receiving in 2022 – and added veteran Robert Tonyan as their TE2. As you can see in the table below, this gives Chicago two TEs who put up starting-caliber volume in 2022.

Of course, volume isn’t everything.

It is also worth exploring how efficient a player was with the targets they received. The table below shows some basic efficiency stats for Kmet and Tonyan in 2022, as well as ranks relative to the 29 NFL tight ends who saw at least 50 targets. The spread of outcomes for those 29 players is also shown to give more context overall. Any areas where a player ranked in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while the bottom 25% are highlighted in red. The table also includes Kmet’s stats from 2020 and 2021 to see how his efficiency has changed throughout his career.

A few thoughts:

  • Kmet saw his volume drop from 93 to 69 targets in 2022, but his efficiency skyrocketed. This shows both Kmet’s growth as a player and a new offensive scheme that aligns with his skill set.
    • As we saw when looking at Jusin Fields earlier this offseason, the Bears used play action far more in 2022 than they did in 2021, and that deception was able to help free Kmet and mask his athletic deficiencies as a route runner. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to stats on play action for receivers, but this film study with Kmet shows a number of his big plays from 2022 coming when he was uncovered due to play action.
    • With the addition of DJ Moore this offseason, plus the return to health of Chase Claypool and Darnell Mooney, it’s reasonable to assume Kmet will be farther down the receiving order in 2023. He might see a decrease in total targets for a 2nd year in a row, but an efficient secondary weapon in the passing game can be extremely valuable.

  • Robert Tonyan, on the other hand, was not a very efficient tight end in 2022, as he ranked below-average in both yards per target and targets per touchdown.
    • It is worth noting that 2022 was Tonyan’s first season back after tearing his ACL in 2021, and he was much more efficient in 2020 (9.9 yards/target), so there is hope that being another year removed from the injury can help him return to form (there is some evidence that players take 2 years to really recover after a torn ACL).
    • It is also worth wondering how much the team change from Green Bay to Chicago will impact Tonyan. We can certainly expect him to play fewer snaps and see fewer targets than the 600 and 60 he averaged over his last two healthy seasons, but he is playing in the same offense, and even under the same offensive coordinator (Luke Getsy) from his 2020 season, so his role might not be all that different when he is on the field.

These basic stats give us a general picture of Kmet and Tonyan’s performance in 2022, but we have access to far more detail thanks to Pro Football Focus (PFF) and Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder, and the rest of this series will look in more depth to see what we can learn about Kmet and Tonyan.

Man vs. Zone

Let’s start with an examination of how Chicago’s tight ends performed against man and zone coverage in 2022, with data coming from PFF. Once again, both players are compared to the 29 NFL tight ends who saw at least 50 targets last year, and ranks in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

(Side note: sorry if the formatting is poor for the graph. You can click on it to see it in a new window in full if it’s not showing up right for you.)

A few thoughts:

  • It really stands out that Kmet and Tonyan were the two least frequently targeted tight ends in the NFL against man coverage in terms of routes run per target. If you look at % of total targets that came against man, Kmet ranked 23rd and Tonyan 20th, so once again we see that neither is going to be a high-volume weapon when somebody mans up on them.
    • Looking at Kmet, he was very effective against man coverage in the rare instances he was targeted, which is a distinct change from the first two years of his career. We can attribute that mostly to play action. The film study he did with the Athletic highlighted three plays where Kmet’s man bit on play action and left him completely uncovered. Those three plays accounted for 68 yards and three touchdowns, which means Kmet’s 10 other targets against man coverage resulted in six receptions, 36 yards, and one touchdown.
      • Kmet is never going to be a tight end who excels against man coverage because he’s just too stiff to consistently beat his man 1-on-1, but he did show in 2022 that he can be a real weapon against man when schemed open on play action.
      • Thankfully for the Bears, Darnell Mooney and DJ Moore have both shown they’re capable of beating man coverage. We can expect those two to be the primary targets when teams man up on Chicago in 2023.
    • Looking at Tonyan, his man production is absolutely awful in the rare instances when he was targeted. The short depth of targets and catches especially highlights that pretty much the only impact he made against man was on dump-offs, and he wasn’t able to do much with those catches.
      • This was a distinct change from 2020, when Tonyan saw 36% of his targets against man and was extremely productive, posting a 76% catch rate and 8.5 yards/target. He was also able to get open farther downfield prior to his knee injury, averaging 7.5 air yards/catch. If Tonyan does have a bounce back in 2023, 2 years past his knee injury, he could emerge as a viable 3rd target against man coverage.
  • Looking at zone coverage, we see both Kmet and Tonyan serve as more frequent targets, even after accounting for tight ends typically being more utilized against zone than man.
    • One thing that stands out about Kmet is that his target and catch depth are both very short compared to other tight ends against zone. That suggests he’s mainly being used as a checkdown option and not threatening down the field. Still, Kmet did a solid job of catching a high rate of balls and picking up yards after the catch, meaning he was still efficient against zone.
    • Tonyan actually sees a very similar profile to Kmet, with short targets and a high catch rate leading to average efficiency overall. That actually matches what he saw in 2020 quite well.

Lessons Learned

We’re now 1100 words in, so we’ll call it a day. Stay tuned for part two tomorrow, when we’ll look at Kmet and Tonyan by target depth, producing explosive plays, and involvement in key situations (3rd/4th down, red/zone). In the meantime, here are the main takeaways from today:

  • Cole Kmet is a good fit in Chicago’s new offense, which has allowed him to emerge as an efficient option in the passing game.
    • He is not targeted much against man but can be schemed into big plays against man coverage through play action.
    • He is much more involved against zone, where he primarily gets used as an effective safety valve underneath.
  • Robert Tonyan was not very effective in 2022, but there is hope he can improve in 2023 as he is now two years removed from tearing his ACL.
    • He was not used much against man, and mostly was an ineffective checkdown catcher when he did get involved. This was a huge change from his performance prior to his knee injury and provides the hope he could be a reliable threat against man coverage if his knee is now fully healed.
    • Like Kmet, he is a safe and effective checkdown option against zone coverage.

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