As fallen tight end Zach Miller begins what will be a long rehabilitation journey from a dislocated knee, damaged artery and probable ligament damage, the Chicago Bears begin the process of trying to replace arguably the most effective weapon in their passing game.
Going into last week's game, Miller was tied for the team lead with 236 receiving yards, and his 2 TD catches were the team's best. He tied for the team lead last year in touchdown receptions with 4 and in 2015 with 5.
Initial medical reports have been encouraging, but Miller has many obstacles to clear.
"He's progressing well," Bears coach John Fox said. "He's with his family. Been a lot of people reach out from around the league in communication with them. Been some Saints players heading by (Tuesday)."
Because the Bears use two tight ends more often than not, Miller and Dion Sims had been playing roughly the same amount of snaps, about two-thirds of the total each game. Sims, 26, is considered more of an all-purpose tight end, while Miller's more of a pass-catching tight end.
Backup tight ends Daniel Brown and rookie Adam Shaheen will be counted on to pick up the slack left by Miller's absence. The 6-foot-5, 243-pound Brown is almost exactly the same size as the 6-foot-5, 243-pound Miller and has some of the same pass-catching attributes. At 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, Shaheen has the size to contribute in all phases, like the 6-foot-4, 268-pound Sims.
It won't be easy to replace Miller's productivity on the field.
It'll be impossible to replace his presence in the locker room, in the meeting rooms and off the field, where the 33-year-old was the voice of experience and a lot more.
"He's been like an older brother to all of us," said Shaheen, the 23-year-old second-round pick from Ashland. "He's had more experience than maybe all of us combined in that (tight end) room. Just his wisdom and knowledge, and he's just such a great guy off the field to be around -- somebody you want to be around. We're going to miss that for sure."
Shaheen's only catch this year went for a 2-yard touchdown, but he should see more action after the bye this week.
Brown, a 25-year-old third-year player, filled in for Miller Sunday. He has 1 catch for 9 yards this year, but he caught 16 passes for 124 yards and 1 touchdown last year, all after Miller went on injured reserve with a fractured foot.
Healthy or hurt, Miller has had an influence on Brown.
"Having been around him for a year now, I've developed a close friendship with the guy, and it's not just in the building," Brown said. "We've hung out multiple times outside the building, so it's a friendship beyond football."
Brown's been around long enough to know of Miller's extensive injury history, including a three-season stretch (2012-14) when he didn't play at all because of a variety of injuries.
"When you watch him come back from the past couple injuries he's had, and then you see him lying on the ground again (Sunday), my heart just sank," Brown said. "I just felt so bad for him. I didn't see exactly what happened, so I didn't really know the severity of it. "Then, when I learned what kind of injury it was, it becomes a different kind of feeling. Now you're scared. Is everything going to be all right for him to be able to walk again? Is he going to get back to normal?"
Miller's injury provides Brown with an opportunity -- but not the way he would have preferred.
"Everybody wants playing time," Brown said. "(But) I feel terrible the way it happened. But it's an opportunity for me to show improvement from last year, show that I can be trusted in this offense when my number's called.
"I can't replace him at all, and I'm not going to try to replace him. I'm just going to go out there and do the best I can."
That's what Miller would do.
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