BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Some of the elite offenses in the NFL have in their quivers the threat of two tight ends, on the field on the same time, a traditional look associated with power-running football but more recently a source of matchup problems defending the passing game.
Citing a few of the leading practitioners:
New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez.
San Francisco 49ers: Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald.
Philadelphia Eagles: Brent Celek, Zach Ertz.
Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Eifert, Jermaine Gresham.
Those four all made the 2013 playoffs and averaged 11.25 wins last season. And they score: New England No. 3 in scoring; Philadelphia No. 4; Cincinnati No. 6; San Francisco No. 11. The Bears ranked No. 2 in scoring without two receiving tight ends but with issues at No. 3 wide receiver, an immediate opening exists for a pass-catching tight end.
The Bears may be about to join the group of teams turning the tight end position into a true threat, which is perhaps a development of potentially major significance for a team right now finding itself without a proven threat at No. 3 wide receiver.
Besides Martellus Bennett (65 catches in 2013), veteran Zach Miller delivered a strong statement last Friday against the Philadelphia Eagles with six receptions for 68 yards and two touchdowns. This was with Bennett still out on suspension, but the result may have been to present the Bears with a welcome opportunity.
“Zach, I think, has always been a good player,” said offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. “But it’s a case where he has had injury problems in the past. So he never got to show it on the field. And basically now he’s just getting the ability to show it, and we’re just glad we have him while that’s happening.”
Miller got more chances to showcase his talents on Tuesday, turning in two red-zone touchdown catches against tight coverage in traffic. He worked with the No. 1 offense, ahead of Dante Rosario for at least the day, with Rosario nursing a leg injury from Monday’s practice.
Miller, 6-6, 236 pounds, was a sixth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009. He does have some substantial proving to do, not having played in an NFL game since October 2011. He missed the final game of 2010 with a concussion, on IR for the final 12 games in 2011 and was in IR for all of 2012. He then failed to stick with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and sat out the 2013 season.
What is especially notable with Miller is that he is earning the confidence of quarterbacks, including the most important one. Against the Eagles, Miller caught TD passes from Jay Cutler and Jordan Palmer, and his TD catches Tuesday were of Cutler passes.
“Zach had a heck of a day last week,” Cutler said. “He's had a really good camp. These last couple days he's had some really strong performances again.”
The biggest issue, besides his durability, is whether Miller can be a blocker as well as a receiver, a skills combination that makes Bennett an every down player.
“You know, we have a good crop of tight ends that can block, and he’s one of them,” Kromer said. “You saw him in the last game. He’ll line up at fullback. He’ll line up as a wing. He’ll line up in-line, and he does some things better than others. But with the threat in the passing game, and his ability to block, he’s a good weapon.”