Justin Fields-Cole Kmet connection is key to Bears’ present, future

SEATTLE — This time last year, as the Bears embarked on Matt Nagy’s final boondoggle with Andy Dalton at quarterback, Cole Kmet’s mind wandered into the future.

He saw then-rookie quarterback Justin Fields relegated to second-string as part of an ill-conceived plan that blew up on the Bears halfway through their second game and knew he needed to begin establishing their connection. He stayed late to practice with Fields knowing their time would come.

It’s here.

There remains great uncertainty about both players, but their careers are syncing up for a perfect opportunity this season. The Bears are finally fully committed to Fields as their starter and running an offense tailored to his skills. And as much as Kmet appreciated veteran Jimmy Graham’s tutelage, his departure was necessary for Kmet to fully step into the role of all-purpose tight end.

Either of them emerging would be big for the Bears. Both of them doing it would be enormous. And the work they began last summer seems to be building toward a breakthrough.

“I knew early on, down the road, that was going to be a big deal,” Kmet told the Sun-Times after the Bears beat the Seahawks on Thursday. “And it’s been progressing from that point to this offseason and then having a full training camp with him now and a preseason game — that’s a big deal.

“It gives you more confidence — both of us — because you know you’re the guy. It’s been good for us. We’re still far from where we want to be and what we can be, but I think that’s the exciting part about it.”

Kmet was quick to note that it was merely one drive in a preseason game, but the duo showed a glimpse of its potential in Seattle.

On their first snap, the Bears schemed Kmet open beautifully on a screen pass, and he turned it into a 12-yard gain by spinning free from a would-be tackler about halfway through the play and plowing forward in a crowd at the end of it.

The new staff at Halas Hall has been gushing about Kmet throughout the offseason, but it’s not always clear how genuine someone is when the cameras are rolling. It is more telling, though, that they’ve repeatedly raved about his training off the record, too. He’s a holdover from Ryan Pace and Nagy, who collaborated to draft him No. 43 overall in 2020, but he quickly won over his new bosses.

That catch Thursday was a snapshot of what they projected: a tight end with the speed, agility and power to do everything they’ll need. And specifically, everything Fields will need as he tries to prove he’s a franchise quarterback.

If any front office drew up a list of necessities for a young quarterback, a reliable tight end would be at or near the top of it. Kmet could consistently present himself as Fields’ surest option when he drops back, and given that he could face a lot of pressure this season, he needs someone he can trust in an emergency.

“When you get the non-verbal stuff going and you can just look at someone and have a feel of what they’re gonna do on every play, that’s where you want to get to,” Kmet said. “That takes a lot of time, but that’s the goal. We’re growing into that. It’s happening.”

It’s no surprise that the Bears’ offense looked more fluid with Kmet against the Seahawks than it did without him against the chiefs last week.

“He can do pretty much all of it,” Fields said. “He brings another weapon to our offense, for sure, so I was glad to see him out there.”

Bears general manager Ryan Poles brought in a group of mostly unknown skill players, and it would take a lot of faith to believe that’s sufficient for Fields to thrive. But if Kmet takes a major step forward after catching 60 passes for 612 yards and no touchdowns last season, Fields’ supporting cast could be viable.

Fields threw seven passes Thursday: three to Kmet (two catches, 31 yards), two to wide receiver Darnell Mooney (one catch, six yards) and two to backup running back Khalil Herbert (two catches, two yards).

Swap in David Montgomery for Herbert and factor in a contribution from veteran Byron Pringle, and that’s a rough sketch of how targets probably will be allocated during the season.

The Bears will steer through this season constantly glancing ahead to see what they’re putting together for next season, when Poles shifts his rebuild into high gear. As he makes those plans, he must evaluate Fields and Kmet with great scrutiny to see if they’re the answers he seeks or if he needs to start over at those two vital positions.

So they’re both stepping into the spotlight and they’re both on the clock.

It isn’t always this urgent this early for quarterbacks — Fields started just 10 games last season and played 57% of the snaps — but if the Bears are bad this season, they’ll have a very high draft pick. That’s the time to change direction at quarterback.

Not to mention that Poles and coach Matt Eberflus would be risking their jobs if they waited too long to decide whether they’re in or out on Fields.

Likewise, Kmet’s rookie deal ends after the 2023 season. If he convinces the Bears this season, a contract extension is in order next year.

That future Fields and Kmet started working on in training camp last summer is fully in their hands now. And they’ll have to help each other secure it.

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