A Tight Look at the 2023 Tight Ends, Part II: Depth, Downs & Dimensions

| June 13th, 2023

In Part I, we saw that both Cole Kmet and Robert Tonyan are used more against zone than man coverage, and today we’re going to look at their involvement in the passing game through a number of other lenses.

Targets by Depth

Let’s start by looking at how frequently and effectively Chicago’s tight ends were targeted at various depths of the field. The table below shows their stats compared to 29 NFL tight ends with 50+ targets in 2022. Areas where they ranked in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while areas in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red. All data is from Pro Football Focus (PFF). 

(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:

  • The first thing that stands out is that both Kmet and Tonyan were heavily targeted on screen passes behind the line of scrimmage. Kmet in particular was good at converting these into yards by running well with the ball after the catch, a skill that he also showed in 2021 and the Bears did a good job of utilizing more frequently in 2022.
  • Looking at Kmet beyond the line of scrimmage, he was rarely targeted in the intermediate range, but he was highly productive there when targeted. This closely matches Justin Fields’ passing profile in 2022, so hopefully Fields can target that area more aggressively in 2023 and Kmet can benefit.
  • Part of that improving talent comes from Tonyan, who excelled in the short game but didn’t do much down the field.
    • The downfield struggles are a distinct change from 2020, when 35% of Tonyan’s targets were at least ten yards downfield and he caught 75% of those passes for 16.1 yards/target.
    • Like we said in Part I, 2023 will be year two after his knee injury, which is when many players return closer to their pre-injury norms, and 2020 (pre-injury) Tonyan was a significantly better player than the 2022 version.

Explosive Plays

Let’s look now at how effectively each player produced explosive plays in 2022, since those have a strong relationship with scoring points. All data here comes from Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder, and once again ranks are compared to the 29 NFL tight ends with 50+ targets in 2022.

A few thoughts:

  • Like we saw last year, Kmet produces explosive plays at roughly an average rate when Justin Fields is throwing the ball. That’s a bit disappointing considering Fields as a whole produces explosive passes at an above-average rate because he likes to attack down the field, but makes sense when you consider that the bulk of Kmet’s targets come against zone, where he is primarily used underneath.
  • Tonyan produced explosive plays at a below-average rate last year, which also makes sense given that we’ve seen the bulk of his targets were very short in 2022.
    • You won’t be surprised to find that this trend was very different in 2020 prior to his knee injury, where Tonyan produced an explosive catch every 6.6 targets or 5.8 catches. Both of those would be among the best marks in the NFL, and there’s certainly no guarantee that he gets back there, but even some improvement towards pre-injury production could bring Tonyan into the average to above-average category here. He has shown the ability in the past to be a weapon down the field.

Third and Fourth Down

Next let’s look at 3rd and 4th down, when stakes are high and players need to produce a first down to move the chains and avoid a punt. The table below shows how frequently and effectively Kmet and Tonyan were targeted in these high-leverage positions in 2022. Once again, data is from Game Play Finder, ranks are compared to the 29 NFL tight ends with 50 or more targets, and ranks in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Kmet was not targeted very frequently on 3rd or 4th down, but he did produce 1st downs at an effective rate when targeted.
    • This is a distinct difference from 2021, when he was targeted frequently but was highly ineffective in those targets, and it speaks again to an offense using Kmet more effectively by decreasing his volume and picking spots to scheme up big plays for him, often on play action.
    • Kmet’s rate of turning catches into 1st downs is low for the 2nd year in a row, but that is really context dependent. Six of his 14 3rd down catches did not pick up a 1st, but they came with an average of nearly 12 yards to go and were likely situations where Kmet was a checkdown option because the main read(s) past the 1st down marker were not open.
  • Tonyan was targeted at an average rate on 3rd/4th down, but did not do very well with his targets. This is not a huge surprise given everything we’ve seen so far with Tonyan’s 2022 inefficiency as he worked his way back from his knee injury. He was only really useful on dumpoffs and checkdowns.
    • You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this was very different in 2020, when Tonyan saw 34% of his targets on 3rd down and turned 60% of them into 1st downs, both of which would be very strong numbers if he can approach them as he hopefully has a healthier 2023 season.

Red Zone

Finally, let’s take a look at Kmet and Tonyan in the red zone in 2022. Once again, data is from the Game Play Finder, ranks are compared to the 29 NFL tight ends with 50 or more targets, and ranks in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while those in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Kmet’s production in the red zone was quite strong in 2022, which is a distinct change from his career prior to that. I am again going to chalk that up to a new offense fitting Kmet’s skill set better and better utilizing him on misdirection/play action. This film study shows three of Kmet’s 10 red zone targets and three of his six touchdowns, and two of those came when play action left Kmet uncovered. There is hope that Kmet can remain a red zone weapon in this offense in 2023 (and beyond).
  • Tonyan, on the other hand, was absolutely abysmal in the red zone in 2022. He was rarely targeted there, and did basically nothing with the few targets he did see.
    • Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Tonyan’s 2020 season tells a very different story. There, he was both heavily involved and highly efficient in the red zone, as he saw 19% of his total targets there and turned 73% of them into 1st downs or touchdowns.

Lessons Learned

Now that we’re 1200 words in on this article, and 2300 on the series overall, let’s look at what we’ve learned about each tight end:

  • Cole Kmet saw his target volume drop in 2022, but his overall efficiency took a real step forward in a new offense that utilized him more strategically.
    • This included improving real weaknesses from his first two seasons against man coverage, on 3rd/4th down, and in the red zone.
    • Kmet is never going to be a high-volume pass catcher who you can build a passing attack around, but he has shown he can be very effective as a secondary weapon.
    • Stay tuned for a closer look at what type of contract that could merit for Kmet should he sign an early extension prior to the start of the season.
  • New addition Robert Tonyan had a highly ineffective 2022 season where he wasn’t good for much more than catching dumpoffs in low-leverage situations.
    • The intrigue comes in looking back at what Tonyan was in 2020 prior to tearing his ACL in 2021. If he can regain that form, or anything close to it, he becomes a legitimate weapon in his own right, and Chicago have two quality starting tight ends with skill sets that complement each other well.
    • It is important to note, however, that there are no guarantees that happens. Maybe what we saw in 2022 is all that Tonyan has to offer now. If that’s the case, he’s still a perfectly fine backup who can help Chicago’s struggles in the short passing game.

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