Finally healthy, Zach Miller a good fit with Chicago Bears
Staying healthy for the first time in more than three years was the biggest factor in tight end Zach Miller's breakout season in 2015.
But it wasn't the only ingredient that helped the 31-year-old land a two-year contract -- which could be worth as much as $7.5 million including bonuses -- in re-signing with the Chicago Bears.
"(It's) just being comfortable," Miller said. "Being comfortable with who I am as a player, continuing to work on the things in the run game and blocking, (things) I hadn't been able to do prior to that, (which was) part of not being on the field.
"There's a number of things that led into this: being healthy, working, continuing to grind, getting an opportunity and taking advantage of it."
While Miller visited with the Rams during his 100 or so hours as an unrestricted free agent, re-upping with the Bears was an easy decision.
"This is a comfortable place for me and my family (wife, Kristen, daughter Izabella and son Kashton)," he said. "This is where we wanted to be. The organization, the way (general manager) Ryan (Pace) is moving forward, and coach (John) Fox's vision.
"It's something that I really wanted to be a part of."
Aside from family considerations, Miller's next priority was continuing to work with quarterback Jay Cutler, who helped him post career-best numbers in receptions (34), yards (439), average gain per catch (12.9) and touchdowns (team-high 5) last year.
"Family-wise was No. 1," Miller said. "Jay was No. 2. To be able play football with a guy like that at that position, elite arm, elite mental status, (a guy) who can make decisions, that was one of the biggest reasons."
Although Martellus Bennett began last season as the Bears' No. 1 tight end, he had a disappointing and injury-plagued second half and he's on the trading block. Bennett caught just 8 passes in the final eight games for 58 yards, a 7.3-yard average, and no touchdowns.
Over the last nine weeks, Miller was tied for fourth among all NFL tight ends with 5 TD catches and seventh with 404 receiving yards.
"However things play out with Marty is how they play out," Miller said. "That's out of my control and out of his control. He's a special player and a special person to be around. It's not up to us. However it plays out, I'm ready to fill whatever role is needed."
That could mean Miller goes to training camp as the Bears' No. 1 tight end. His path to that point wasn't easy or direct, but the reward is well-earned.
"It's a long journey; a really good one," the six-year veteran said. "There's been ups and downs, but I'm just really thankful to be able to continue my career here."
At 6-feet-5 and 240 pounds, Miller's forte as a tight end always has been as a pass catcher. He's not close to being the powerful, in-line blocker that Bennett could be when he was motivated.
That's an aspect of the position at which Miller knows he must improve. He was a full-time quarterback at Nebraska-Omaha who didn't play tight end until an all-star game after his senior season.
"I'd been a quarterback my entire life," Miller said. "Making the transition at the highest level, the NFL, I wasn't asked to (block) a lot my first two to three years. I've never really got to work on it, to practice it. Then the couple years where I didn't get to work on football at all, being hurt."
Miller has become a better blocker by working with tight ends coach Frank Smith.
"Frank taught me some different techniques and different fundamentals and made me comfortable with those," Miller said. "Then it was just doing it. You get that muscle memory, and then you can build on it.
"I'm still not a bone-crushing blocker; that's not who I am. But I'm going to continue to work on it every single day and complete my game."
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