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Expectations: Zach Miller

A quick look at the offense shows a lack of familiar names, and the defense might be fixed just in time for the offense to lose its punch. Can Zach Miller step up?

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Barring something dramatic happening, Zach Miller is now the #1 tight end on the Chicago Bears. After leading the team with touchdown receptions in 2015, that makes a certain amount of sense. Any sports fan has to love the story of a lunch-pail pro who has a chance to shine and makes good. The attitude and energy Miller brought to the team last year was one of the bright spots of the season, and he backed both up in terms of production.

In 2015, Football Outsiders had Zach Miller as the fifth-ranking tight end in terms of DVOA (+25.6%), and he was the 11th-highest in terms of DYAR (+104). In his fifteen appearances, he had a 74% catch rate and just about 13 yards per catch (good enough to place him ahead of Jimmy Graham but behind Greg Olsen). By comparison, Martellus Bennett only hit that level of performance once (in 2008). Even in terms of raw metrics, Miller was better than Bennett in terms of catch rate (75% vs 66%), yards per reception (12.9 vs. 8.3), and touchdowns per game (0.33 vs. 0.27). If someone could just promise me that Miller's 2015 performance would hold solid for another fifteen games this season, this article would be much, much shorter.

However, there is a lot to be cautious about. First, there's the obvious. When he caught the game-winning touchdown week 9 against San Diego, he broke what was nearly a 1,500-day drought between touchdowns. He has only been available for 75% of the games played during the four seasons he was on a roster, and that excludes his lack of playing across three seasons (2012-2014). By way of comparison, Rob Gronkowski has made 83% of available games and Bennett was able to suit up 93% of the time. The label "injury prone" is probably thrown around way too cavalierly in fan circles, but Miller really has struggled to stay healthy.

Perhaps just as importantly, there's reason to think that Miller's performance last year had as much to do with Cutler as it did with Miller himself. Jay does a good job getting the ball to his tight ends, and there are a couple of big plays that had at least as much to do with what the rest of the offense was doing as they did with Miller's ability.

Finally, 2015 was a career year for Miller. He ended the season on the upswing, but if a 34-catch, sub-500-yard season represents his ceiling (and if 5 touchdowns in a season are truly his limit), then Miller will be nothing more than a contributor. A solid role-player. In point of fact, that is exactly what I hope he develops into. If Miller can become a release valve that takes pressure off of Jeffery and White, and someone who gives Cutler someone to throw to while the Langford experiment runs its course, then he will serve the Bears well.

However, if the team needs to rely on Miller to be one of the true leading weapons on offense, then there is every reason to be cautious. Last year, 80-90 targets in a season put a tight end out of the ten in terms of use, but not by much. It's pretty typical of the usage rate for the #1 tight end in Chicago since Martz and Tice left town. That many targets with the same level of performance in terms of catch rate and yards per reception are probably too much to ask. If he were to manage it, Miller would produce 800-900 yards of offense, good enough to put him in the top 10 of tight ends but not the top 5. That is probably ambitious (though I'd be happy to wrong about that).

Until Miller backs up a fantastic 2015 season, it's reasonable to think that he's going to be a bit under that. As a backup tight end pressed into service last year, Miller was a pleasant surprise. As a key member of the offense, the same performance that brought cheers last year will be at least mildly disappointing this season. It is possible Miller can continue his performance from last year, but it is unlikely that he is going to better it at this point in his career.

Expectations: Moderate. If Miller can stay healthy, he will likely manage to provide the Bears with a solid if unspectacular weapon. If I am wrong and if Miller can continue to improve, I will be one of the loudest ones cheering for him.