It took quite awhile before Chicago Bears tight end Zach Miller comfortably found his niche in the NFL. And even when he did, as he has relatively at Halas Hall now, it has to feel like someone is deliberately ripping opportunity from his grasp with the Bears clearly building towards the future given their 2017 offseason haul. To better understand Miller’s current predicament, you have to take a look at his winding road to get to this current impasse.
Before carving out a place with the Bears, Miller, a former sixth-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009, already saw long odds as a professional given draft positioning anyway. Then, rampant injuries from a popped out shoulder that just wouldn’t heal, a partially torn Achilles and torn calf muscle, to a concussion as well as torn ligament in his foot, had Miller keep suffering setback after setback while merely trying to latch on anywhere.
Miller would never admit it himself, but it had to feel like painful career robbery again and again.
After said foot injury in 2014 in Chicago, the Bears still held onto enough belief to retain Miller’s services. What ensued was a finally healthy year for him in 2015 when former tight end and the since traded Martellus Bennett didn’t ingratiate himself well with team brass. In 15 games, Miller had 34 receptions for 439 yards and five touchdowns. Not necessarily gaudy numbers by any means, but when you consider he didn’t begin to take over as the No. 1 until late in the year, it speaks to healthy production.
Said play was good enough for the Bears to re-sign the 32-year-old Miller to a two-year, $5,500,000 deal after 2015 and place the brunt of their thin tight end depth chart on his shoulders. Of course, he would play well enough as one of the more underrated players at his position. Last season, Miller amassed 47 receptions for 486 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games, all before, yes - another injury, this time breaking his foot, which had him miss the rest of a disappointing 2016.
Now, the underlying concern isn’t whether Miller can battle back. Clearly, when taking his extensive injury history into consideration, he understands how to successfully rehabilitate and maintain his performance. It’s about his standing with the Bears in preparing obvious replacement plans as they undoubtedly note they can’t wholly rely on him long-term.
The most obvious contingency being set in place is 2017 second-round pick, Adam Shaheen, who at 6-foot-7, 278 pounds is aptly named “Baby Gronk” for his freakish size and athletic ability.
Shaheen, who roomed with this year’s No. 2 overall pick, Mitchell Trubisky at rookie mini-camp in May, is clearly being set in as a potential cornerstone for the Bears and their new young quarterback to get accustomed to. The Bears have their “Step Brothers” duo as new best friends. While some may question just how much Shaheen will play in his upcoming rookie season after making the transition from Division II football, general manager Ryan Pace isn’t relenting on his confidence in his draft pick.
“Adam, he’s projected to play early, I like his skill set,” said Pace following his selection of the monstrous tight end.
Whether that’s splitting out Shaheen as more of a receiver, deploying him out of the backfield as a fullback, and other uses, that’s less than ideal news for a veteran like Miller on the last year of a two-year deal. This is the kind of revelation and offensive implementation that prepares a younger player for almost full-time play, while phasing out older toys such as Miller who are fighting for their professional life.
Of course, in that regard, Miller is going to have to do a lot to stake out his claim against not only Shaheen, but new free agent addition Dion Sims from the Miami Dolphins. Sims has had his own injury issues in his shorter career, but when on the field, has proven to be a complete player with an ideal blocking build and upside as a receiver.
Sims has shown enough on the field in fact, that Pace even called him the Bears’ “Y” tight end and Miller the “F”. In less than common knowledge, all as noted by Rotoworld’s Josh Norris, this means that in most base sets, Sims will be the starter and No. 1 tight end in 2017, while Miller comes in as the second guy. Another sign of a younger player being implemented more while Miller is used in more special packages.
Of course, having all three of these players means you also can expect the Bears to use more multiple tight end sets in 2017. Somehow, that might make everyone happy. One could easily count tight end as a team strength at the moment, at least depth-wise, even if the top heavy talent hasn’t measured out just yet.
But after the events of this season transpire, how many teams shell out for an aging, injury-prone, second tight end who could possibly be their third in deployment by the end of next season, such as Miller? The sound you hear from crickets is almost ironically deafening. And the significant investment the Bears made for their tight ends on both the open market and with valuable draft capital speaks volumes.
If Miller had more of a successful track record, perhaps looking into the crystal ball of how his Bears future will shake out would be so much more complicated. But he doesn’t.
Miller has that mentioned litany of injuries throughout his career and counting on him to be one of the rare human-beings that actually breaks down less while playing a physical game into his 30’s is misguided. He’s also never caught more than 50 passes or at least 500 yards in a season (yes, he likely would’ve reached this mark in 2016, but he didn’t due to his foot). And he’s never played in all 16 games while never catching more than five touchdowns. Indictment after indictment that the Bears have certainly noted themselves in retrospect.
Nothing on the ledger, from numbers to roster moves, points to a franchise player only slightly hitting his career twilight with a worthy and loyal re-investment coming. All signs instead have the landing motioning towards a veteran such as Miller playing out likely his last days in a city he finally found stability in to cement the search for a new destination in 2018.
This is a harsh but common reality in the NFL that Miller isn’t alone in experiencing. The “Not For Long” is all about what you can do for me lately, not what you’ve done in the past, after all.
For Miller, in both designations, he doesn’t have much to work with in regards to the Bears. And that is perhaps the most definitive writing on the wall for a player on shaky ground.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.