Lessons From Ryan Poles’ first two drafts

| April 9th, 2024

Ryan Poles is just a few days away from running his 3rd NFL draft for the Chicago Bears. Now that we have two years of draft history to go on, let’s dive in to see what lessons might apply for 2024.

Targets athletes

The first and most clear trend is that Ryan Poles likes to draft athletic players. We see this through a few different metrics:

  • Relative Athletic Scores (RAS): This scales athletes on overall athleticism from 0-10, with 5 being average, 9 being the 90th percentile, etc.
    • Through 2 seasons, the average Poles draft pick has had an RAS score of 8.6, in the 86th percentile for their position, and that increases to over 9 – top 10% of athleticism – if you look only at picks from Days 1 & 2.
    • Overall, only 1 of 13 players drafted in the first 5 rounds have had an RAS below 8, indicating they are not in the top 20% of athletes at their position.
      • Side note: S Elijah Hicks and P Trenton Gill, both 7th round picks, did not test to qualify for RAS, so they are excluded from the numbers above.
  • Athleticism Score: This athleticism metric from Next Gen Stats is less clear about how it is calculated, but generally is grouped from 50-99, with 50s being below average, 60s average, 70s + 80s above average, and 90s elite in terms of overall athleticism.
    • Of the 16 players with an athleticism score published on their NFL draft profile, 15 have a score above 70, indicating they are above average. Once again, this trend is even stronger if you look only at the higher and more meaningful picks, as all 13 players drafted in the first 5 rounds score in the 70s or 80s.
    • Overall, the average athleticism score is a 76.
      • This data set is missing a host of 6th-7th rounders: S Kendall Williamson, S Elijah Hicks, P Trenton Gill, DT Travis Bell, and C Doug Kramer

To be fair, most of the high draft picks in the NFL are athletic players. Thus, this lesson doesn’t really tell us specific names the Bears might target. But it does let us look for players at need positions the Bears might avoid.

The overwhelming majority of players projected to go in the top 2 rounds have a high RAS, but there are a few highly rated guys who aren’t super athletic, like DE Darius Robinson (3.97 RAS) or C Zach Frazier (6.46 RAS), and it seems unlikely the Bears will be interested in a player like that.

Once you start to get into the middle rounds, there are more guys who aren’t great athletes, and I will be surprised to see the Bears target anybody from this list of mid-round players at positions of need:

Not afraid to trade

Through 2 drafts, Poles has pulled off 8 trades that involved pick swaps. In 7 of those, he moved down to create extra picks, which seems to be his preference. Given that the Bears currently only have 4 draft picks for this year, I anticipate we will see him trade down at least once to pick up extra selections, and I won’t be shocked to see multiple trade downs.

The Bears’ pre-draft actions also hint that they are heavily considering trading down early in the draft. Teams are limited to bringing in 30 players for pre-draft visits, and the Bears have used several of them on players projected to go in the 20-50 range despite not currently having a pick between 9 and 75.

  • OT JC Latham (20th on consensus big board)
  • C Jackson Powers-Johnson (25th)
  • C Graham Barton (27th)
  • DE Chop Robinson (28th)
  • OT Tyler Guyton (30th)
  • WR Xavier Worthy (35th)
  • C Zach Frazier (47th)

That’s a whole lot of players – more than 20% of their allotted visits – who are projected to go in a range where the Bears have no picks, which indicates to me they are seriously considering trading back from the 9th pick.

To be fair, Chicago has also done their homework on potential fits if they stick at number 9, as they’ve brought in with players ranked 5th (WR Malik Nabers), 6th (WR Rome Odunze), 8th (Dallas Turner), and 10th (Brock Bowers) on the consensus big board. My guess is that the Bears will have 1-2 guys they would take at pick 9 if they are available, but otherwise will look to trade back a bit and pick up an extra pick or two in the draft.

It’s also worth noting that Poles also showed a willingness to move up in the draft for a guy he covets last year, when he gave up a 4th round pick to move from 61 to 56 and secure CB Tyrique Stevenson. Given the small number of picks this year, a trade up seems less likely, but Poles could get creative and look to move up with 2025 draft capital. They currently have an extra 2nd round pick for next year, and that could be packaged with pick 122 this year to get into the 2nd round (this is what the Bears did to trade up for WR Anthony Miller in 2018).

Double dipping 

Another trend we’ve seen clearly through Poles’ first two drafts is the willingness to draft 2 or even 3 players at the same position.

  • In 2022, he selected S Jaquan Brisker in the 2nd round, and then S Elijah Hicks in the 7th.
  • In 2022, he selected 3 interior offensive linemen – Zachary Thomas, Doug Kramer, and Ja’Tyre Carter – in the 6th and 7th rounds.
  • In 2023, he took DT Gervon Dexter in round 2, DT Zacch Pickens in round 3, and DT Travis Bell in round 7.
  • In 2023, he  took CB Tyrique Stevenson in round 2 and CB Terell Smith in round 5.

It’s hard to envision a double dip this year with only 4 picks, but if they pick up a few extra selections via trade down, then it could be a real possibility. The two positions I could see that most realistically happening at are DE and WR. In both cases, the Bears need another starter, which could prompt a high pick, and there’s also room for a later pick to push for a roster spot against pretty weak depth.

Once again, the Bears have already hinted at this possibility. Head coach Matt Eberflus was caught on mic telling Ryan Poles they should “take two of them” while watching defensive linemen work out at the Combine.

Defensive (over)investment

Another clear trend we see is that Poles loves to invest in defense early in the draft. Five of his seven day 1-2 picks have been spent on defenders, despite the Bears having just as many (if not more) offensive needs over the last two years. This trend has carried over to veteran signings as well, where the Bears have handed out significantly more money to the defense ($115M/year, $226M guaranteed) than offense ($58M/year, $89M guaranteed).

This is what happens when you double down on a defensive head coach who likes to run a simple scheme that requires high level players to work (rather than winning schematically), and I fully expect the trend to continue in 2024. Outside of QB, which is obviously going to be the #1 pick, Chicago has 2 clear holes in their current starting lineup: WR3 (currently Tyler Scott) and DE2 (currently DeMarcus Walker). I fully expect them to prioritize defensive end as being more important. Depending on how they view Gervon Dexter, they might also see 3-technique defensive tackle as a huge need as well.

Wrapping it up

In short, here are the four main lessons we have learned from Ryan Poles’ first two drafts:

  • He only wants to draft plus athletes.
  • He likes to trade down to accumulate more picks.
  • He likes spending multiple picks on one need.
  • He generally invests more in the defense than the offense.

The last three trends all seem to be aligning nicely, in my view. If Ryan Poles trades back from pick 9, he will be in range to invest a first round pick on a pass rusher (DEs like Jared Verse or Chop Robinson or DTs like Byron Murphy or Johnny Newton feel like possible targets), and then have extra picks he can spend to further bolster the pass rush later in the draft.

There is no saying for sure how the draft will unfold – I am sure the Bears’ ultimate action at 9 depends on what happens between picks 2 and 8 – but my read of Poles’ draft history, plus Chicago’s moves so far this offseason – makes me think that is his plan A.

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First Week of Free Agency Reveals Continued Prudence, Patience of Poles

| March 16th, 2024

He doesn’t really care about you, Mr. Meatball.

He doesn’t care about your voracious desire for big-ticket free agent acquisitions.

He doesn’t care about your “we want Fields” chants on a blustery Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field.

You wouldn’t pay a running back? He will.

You wouldn’t pay an off-ball linebacker? He’ll pay two.

You’re obsessed with the nonsense that has come to be called “good process.” He’s concerned with only one process: his.

Ryan Poles has a stubborn vision for how he intends to build the Chicago Bears into a contender and that stubbornness is why it feels like the Bears are finally in the right hands. It is a stubbornness that requires an ability sorely lacking since Jerry Angelo was unfairly chased out of town: self-awareness. When Poles interviewed for this job, he spent most his time with George McCaskey and Ted Phillips explaining all the deficiencies in the roster. He was not kind about his predecessor, and he did not sugarcoat what he believed was required to clean up the mess. In year one, he tore it all down. In year two, he began to reassemble. Many would argue that a general manager’s third year is when pressure to contend surfaces, but Poles knows that is not where the Chicago Bears currently sit in the NFL landscape, especially because they are about to take a quarterback with the first pick in the draft.

Would Christian Wilkins and Danielle Hunter have made the Bears better in 2024? Sure. But neither would make the Bears title contenders, and both would eat up sizable cap space in the future. Poles values flexibility. It’s a word he must have used 300 times in his post-season presser when discussing potential offensive coordinator hires. He’ll use this off-season to improve the roster and expect that improved roster to be playing January football this season. Then he’ll put the finishing touches on his rebuild next off-season, and expectations will rise.

In the meantime, the Bears will continue filling holes with cheaper veterans (Coleman Shelton at center) and hope those cheaper veterans become indispensable, requiring extensions (Andrew Billings). And they’ll wait and see if they can finally get correct the most important position in team sports: quarterback.

UPDATE: On Thursday evening, Ryan Poles executed the trade for Keenan Allen. 

Once again, prudence and patience won the day for Ryan Poles.

Having to part with only a mid-round pick, the Bears will now roster their best receiving duo since Marshall and Jeffery. DJ Moore and Keenan Allen will provide the incoming quarterback two of the most reliable outside targets in the sport, and arguably change the expectations level for the coming campaign.

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6-Time Pro Bowler Keenan Allen is Now a Chicago Bear

| March 15th, 2024

Late last night, the Chicago Bears acquired Chargers all-star WR Keenan Allen for their 4th round pick (#110) in the 2024 NFL Draft. I’ve got some quick thoughts on the move:

  • Turns out that hole in the Bears’ cap created from Jaylon Johnson & D’Andre Swift’s deals had a purpose
  • Obviously this is a move focused on 2024, but I don’t mind the emphasis on next season. 2024 is a massive year for the entire Bears’ organization — in all likelihood, they’ll attempt to develop a rookie QB while competing for a playoff spot. If, therefore, the biggest critique of this move is that Chicago paid too much draft capital & 2024 salary dollars for an offensive leader that should spur the rookie’s development, I think we’ll all survive. Frankly, I think it’s refreshing to see the Bears over-address the young QB’s supporting cast for once.
  • Regardless of which Quarterback ultimately starts for the Bears next year, Keenan Allen should be a stabilizing force in the Bears’ down-to-down passing offense. He specializes in option routes, short-yardage routes, and playing within structure — all of which Caleb Williams and Justin Fields struggle with, meaning Allen could provide a strong guiding hand.
    • If we’re splitting hairs, I think timing routes will likely remain an issue for Justin Fields whereas Caleb Williams’ college tape shows signs of inconsistency more than an outright inability to play within structure, but this isn’t a Caleb Williams breakdown. Regardless of starter, Keenan should help sharpen a short-passing blade that was quite dull throughout 2023.

My overall grade? I like it. The fun factor is ~10/10. I’ve also already assumed that Matt Eberflus begged Poles to let him draft a 1st round defender anyways, so if this move is Poles’ way of making sure Chicago has weapons for a key 2024 season? I dig it.

This does make me wonder what the Bears’ plan is at WR going forward, but we can cross that bridge later. I’d love to draft a 2nd or 3rd round WR to develop throughout the year (Keon Coleman, Roman Wilson, Ricky Pearsall, etc), but I don’t know that the Bears will prioritize that. Also, is Keenan getting extended past 2024? I could see it, but he’ll be 33 next season. We’ll have to wait and see.

For now… Chicago added a 6-time Pro Bowler that’s a god amongst chain-moving WRs. He pairs perfectly with DJ Moore’s ability to threaten all levels of the field as well — those two should be monsters in 12-personnel.

I’m excited to see how this plays out — what an exciting time to be a Bears fan! What will Poles do from here? We’re just going to have to wait and see,

Bonus: Breaking Down Keenan Allen’s Route Running

Below I threw in some of my favorite clips from a light film study last night — check it out and let me know what you think.

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We Have A New Bear!

| March 5th, 2024

There’s a new Chicago Bear in town! As yesterday evening wound down, Ryan Poles sent a 5th round pick to Buffalo to get IOL Ryan Bates, the same Ryan Bates that Poles tried to sign to an RFA tender just two offseasons ago.

Bates brings with him athleticism (check RAS below) and experience at all three interior positions, most recently working at Center. Does that mean he’s Chicago’s future starting Center? Or is he a depth handcuff for Teven Jenkins (health) and Nate Davis (health & poor play)? We’ll find out next year, but either way I think the move works.

Cost wise, a 5th round pick isn’t nothing… but it’s not worth making a meal over either. The Bears’ latest 5th round pick (Noah Sewell) played a grand total of 27 defensive snaps as a rookie last year, a reminder of how hard it is for late-round rookies to contribute on the field quickly.

Assuming that Bates is slated for either the OL’s premiere backup role or a starting position at Center, this move suggests to me that Ryan Poles has prioritized the upcoming 2024 season — given Bates’ cheap 2-year contract, I can get behind that. Regardless of whether the front office rolls with the incumbent Justin Fields or a newly-drafted rookie QB, Chicago has lost the privilege of betting the health of their line’s interior on an inconsistent right-guard, an oft-injured left guard, and what is currently a gaping hole in the line’s center.

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2024 Bears Offseason Primer: Rounding Out the Roster

| February 16th, 2024

The Super Bowl is behind us, and the NFL offseason has officially arrived. Now is the favorite time of year for fans of downtrodden teams like the Bears. Over the next few months, every team will magically turn their weaknesses into strengths and enter training camp with hopes of playing in next years’ Super Bowl — if you don’t believe me, just survey each fanbase in July.

The Bears might not be Super Bowl contenders in 2024, but they took a clear step forward in 2023 and have the resources to improve the roster this offseason, setting up another step in the right direction next fall. But before we get into the whirlwind of draft prep (the Combine starts February 26) and free agency (starts March 13), it’s worth taking a look at where the roster currently stands. Let’s examine:

  • What the Bears’ depth chart looks like as of today
  • Which Chicago impact players are set to hit free agency
  • What Chicago’s salary cap situation looks like
  • Bears players that could be considered for cuts or extensions

Current Depth Chart

Let’s start by looking at who the Bears currently have under contract for 2024. This is based on the 53 players currently signed as of February 7, sorted loosely into what a depth chart would look like below.

A few thoughts:

  • This looks much better than the version I did at a comparable time just a year ago, but it still needs quite a bit of work before it’s truly become a good roster.
  • The most notable weaknesses that jump out are WR2, WR3, and C, where the current ‘starting’ players are clearly not starting-caliber.
    • I would also argue CB needs some work, as I would feel a lot better about Terell Smith as the top backup than a starter.
    • Still, this is a much shorter list than last year, when I said the Bears needed to add 11 starters.
  • Beyond that, improved competition for starters and/or rotational depth is needed at RB, TE, interior OL (G/C),  DE, DT, and S.
  • The Bears still lack in top-level players. Their only All-Pro from a year ago, Jaylon Johnson, is slated to be a free agent, and they lack difference makers. I count DJ Moore, Teven Jenkins, and Montez Sweat as high-level players, with the Bears hoping youngsters like Darnell Wright, Gervon Dexter, Tyrique Stevenson, Kyler Gordon, and Jaquan Brisker can rise to that level in due time.

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Bears Should Move on from Matt Eberflus

| January 3rd, 2024

Chicago’s season will come to a close in Green Bay on Sunday, when the Bears will finish without a winning record for the 5th season in a row and 10th time in the last 11 years. Since the Bears are already out of the playoff race, the game itself is fairly inconsequential for them, but the offseason that follows it will be hugely important, as Chicago will have to decide whether to stay the course or make a change at both head coach and quarterback.

I already examined Chicago’s decision about Fields yesterday, so today I want to take a look at head coach Matt Eberflus. The decision on Eberflus will actually come first, as the Bears will likely officially announce whether he is fired or returning for 2024 in the 1st half of next week.

In-season turnaround

Through the 1st four weeks of the season, the Bears were 0-4, had been outscored by 62 points, and looked like one of the worst teams in the NFL. Since then, they are 7-5, have outscored their opponents by 57 points, and look like a dangerous team. It’s a real credit to Eberflus that he kept the team focused and resilient so they could bounce back from their disastrous start to the season.

However, there are 2 points to consider here:

  1. If Eberflus deserves praise for the Bears’ good stretch starting in week 5, then he also deserves significant blame for their 0-4 start. Why did it take a month for his team to look like they belonged in the NFL?
  2. It’s also worth noting that Chicago has faced a remarkably easy schedule this year.
    • Their opponents cumulatively have a win % of 0.461, which is the 4th easiest schedule in the NFL.
    • When the Bears have played decent teams, they have really struggled, posting a 1-7 record against teams who are currently .500 or better.
    • To be fair, 4 of those games were the 0-4 stretch to start the season (though 3 of those 4 teams are exactly .500 right now, so not exactly stellar), but the Bears are still 1-3 against .500 or better teams since then, compared to 6-2 against sub-.500 teams in the same stretch.

Defensive Improvement

The other main point in Eberflus’ favor is that Chicago’s defense has gotten really good since he took over calling plays. It took a few weeks for him to find his footing, as Eberflus took control of the defense in week 2 but the turnaround didn’t start until week 5. From weeks 1-4, Chicago’s defense gave up 29 points/game (which would be 31st in the NFL over the full season) and ranked 31st in expected points added (EPA) and 26th in success rate. Since week 5, Chicago’s defense has given up 17.4 points/game (which would be 3rd in the NFL over the full season) and ranked 3rd in EPA and 6th in success rate.

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Bears Should Move on from Justin Fields

| January 2nd, 2024

The Bears still play one more game this season, but not much is riding on it. They’ve already been eliminated from the playoffs and locked in the #1 pick in the draft thanks to their offseason trade with the Carolina Panthers. Beating Green Bay to keep them out of the playoffs on Sunday would be fun, but it doesn’t ultimately matter for the Bears’ future.

Accordingly, it’s time to shift attention to the monumental offseason that Chicago faces. The Bears are in a great position right now. They showed in 2023 that they are ready to compete, yet they also hold two 2024 1st round draft picks – including the aforementioned 1st overall pick – and have significant salary cap space (currently slotted for $62M, 8th most in the NFL, but both of those numbers will change significantly as teams make cuts and sign players to extensions).

Chicago has all the ingredients of a team poised to become a significant factor in the NFC over the next few seasons, provided they utilize their resources at hand well. That work will begin this offseason with two franchise-altering decisions: what to do at quarterback and head coach. I want to examine both of those decisions this week, starting with QB Justin Fields today and moving to head coach Matt Eberflus tomorrow.

Justin Fields Has Clearly Improved

Let’s start by noting that Fields has made clear improvements as a passer each season, as you can see in the table below.

A quick glance at these stats shows that Fields has developed into roughly a league average passer this year, though he still takes sacks at a higher than average rate. When you factor in his rushing ability, that has real value. Fields has shown that he is clearly a starting QB in the NFL.

QB Comparison

With that in mind, let’s compare Fields directly to his peers. While the table above looked at all passes thrown in the NFL this year, the table below shows how Fields compares only to the 31 QBs who have thrown the ball at least 230 times. His ranks compared to these peers are shown in parentheses, and any ranks in the top 25% are highlighted in green, while any in the bottom 25% are highlighted in red. A few notes:

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Consequence of Blown Leads: Poles, Warren Face Risky Decisions at Coach, Quarterback

| December 26th, 2023

On Sunday, against the Arizona Cardinals, the Bears were exactly who they have been since Montez Sweat arrived in the middle of the 2023 season. They play terrific defense, at least for most of the game. Their quarterback is one of the most electric runners in the league, and also a mediocrity at every other element of the position. (Even Mark Sanchez was frustrated at the speed at which Fields processed the action.) Their head coach looks primed to let every big lead slip away, but this Sunday the opponent simply wasn’t up to the task. In a league where most teams reside in the middle of the pack, so do these Chicago Bears, and that was most everyone’s preseason expectation.

So why does this season feel like a disappointment?

The answers are simple: Denver, Detroit, Cleveland.

If the Chicago Bears, and their defensive head coach, simply held on to those three double-digit, fourth quarter leads in games where they were clearly the superior team, their record would be 9-6. They would be firmly in the postseason, threatening the Cowboys for the fifth seed and keeping the Lions honest at the top of the division. They would have overcome their embarrassing start to the season, a disaster on and off the field. They would have weathered a multigame stretch with a backup quarterback whose last start was against the Colorado School of Mines. To quote The Great British Bake Off‘s Prue Leith, this season would have been a “triumph.”

But it’s not. Now Ryan Poles and Kevin Warren have decisions to make, and those decisions will come down to a fundamental question: do they believe the coach and quarterback are capable of improvement? Objectively speaking, neither has been good enough in 2023 to warrant confidence in them moving forward. Confidence in them moving forward would require a belief in their potential, and both men have done enough to suggest they are capable of being winning assets for the franchise.

But is that a risk worth taking when you have the first pick in a QB-friendly draft? Is that a risk worth taking when Jim Harbaugh is refusing to sign a $100 million plus extension at Michigan because it requires him not flirting with the NFL this offseason?

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Five Questions, with Five Games Remaining

| November 29th, 2023

(1) What do we make of Matt Eberflus’ defensive success? The Bears are now 9th in yards allowed per game, with the game’s best rush defense. The addition of Montez Sweat has dramatically improved their pass rush, seeing sack and interception totals rise. Eberflus has been a net-minus as a head coach, but he’s been a net-plus as the defensive coordinator, with only the late-game collapses against Denver and Detroit marring his 2023 record. This defensive program is clearly working. Will continued success over the final five games be enough for him to keep his job?

(2) What about the availability of high-profile offensive minds? Frank Reich, a terrific OC with clear ties to Eberflus, is now available. Josh McDaniels, a bad head coach but good OC, is now available. Eric Bienemy will be available (and should be in demand as a head coaching candidate) come January. Could Eberflus sell the front office on his defensive success with a retooled offensive structure?

(3) Is the quarterback’s tenure in Chicago officially over? If the season ended Monday night, that answer would surely be yes; the lack of week-to-week consistency would not prohibit the Bears from using one of their high draft picks on a quarterback prospect. Fields has ability; he is a brilliant runner capable of making dynamic plays off-script. But if you listened to Troy Aikman on Monday night, you heard an analyst incredibly skeptical of Fields’ ability to play the position from the pocket. Folks in the building share that skepticism.

(4) Where will the Carolina pick land? The Bears don’t have a particularly good team left on their schedule. It is likely they finish 2-3 or 3-2 over the final five, with the latter moving their own draft pick outside the top ten. Carolina’s finish will play an important role in the composition of the 2024 roster. If they finish with a top two pick, it feels a sure thing that the Bears hit restart at the quarterback position. But what if Carolina win a few games down the stretch and that pick falls outside the Caleb Williams/Drake Maye realm? (Side note: I’ll be rooting for the Bears to take Drake because then we can call him The Hotel.)

(5) How much money are the drops costing Jaylon Johnson? If Johnson could catch, he would be a pick-six machine, and those drops are the only thing preventing him from entering the “best corner in the league” conversation. Eddie Jackson’s career is over, but the Bears have productive young players throughout their secondary. Poles should just suck it up and Johnson what he wants to avoid the tag ballet that follows situations like this. The dropped pick sixes have actually rendered Johnson cheaper than he should be.

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Projecting Cole Kmet’s Contract Extension

| June 14th, 2023

In the last two days, we’ve looked in depth at tight end Cole Kmet’s production, and found that he’s not going to be a guy you build your passing attack around, but has proven he’s a solid secondary receiving weapon who fits well in Chicago’s current offense. We also saw earlier this offseason that Kmet is a solid run blocker, which the Bears clearly value in this scheme.

Since he has finished three years in the NFL, Kmet is eligible for an early contract extension that could lock him in to Chicago through his prime. Ryan Poles stated earlier this offseason that he would be looking to sign a few key young players to extensions before the season starts, and Kmet seems like the most obvious candidate there.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the tight end market to see what Kmet’s deal could end up looking like.

Favorable Comparisons (Kmet)

Let’s start by looking at contracts Cole Kmet’s camp will point to as deals signed by comparable players. The table below shows five such deals signed by tight ends in the last two years.

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