"Cole Kmet will be in line with all those guys," Kelly said.
Kelly wasn't at all surprised that Kmet was the first tight end taken in the NFL Draft last week, when the Bears selected him at No. 43 overall in the second round. He figured it was just a matter of which team had that positional need.
Kelly scoffed at the idea that the Bears were making a mistake in adding Kmet to a group of nine other tight ends.
"What they're getting is an athletic tight end who's going to impact their offense immediately," Kelly said. "He's smart, he's got the capabilities to get better and better as he continues to develop. Having a lot of tight ends on your roster is one thing. Having Cole Kmet, that's another."
Kmet suffered a broken collarbone during a non-contact drill in a preseason practice last August. He missed the team's first two games of the season but returned in time for Notre Dame's game at Georgia on Sept. 21, when he caught nine passes for 103 yards and a touchdown while asserting himself against a tough Bulldogs defense. It was then Kelly realized Kmet was a "fearless" player with NFL gifts.
Kmet caught 43 passes for 515 yards and six touchdowns while emerging as a key red-zone threat in Notre Dame's offense. In his first full season taking on a key role, Kmet showcased the kinds of tools with which he can be successful.
Kelly views those as the foundation of Kmet's potential. It's something he told NFL general managers and scouts as they evaluated Kmet.
"This is a full-time job now," Kelly said. "He doesn't have to worry about academics. He'll be much better at route running, in-line blocking, the technique associated with combination blocks, working with the offensive line. All those areas, he's going to be able to really elevate his technical game.
"I thought there was a lot of growth there still for him."
The Bears believe in that too. They feel confident that Kmet can contribute as a rookie and the manner in which he can develop under the watch of new tight ends coach Clancy Barone, who has coached four Pro Bowl tight ends, including Rudolph.
Kelly believes in the potential Kmet has in the NFL and isn't shying away from sharing that belief.
"If we're ever going to start comparing Cole Kmet right now to an All-Pro," Kelly said, "that's a pretty good thing."