Injury free at last, Zach Miller leads the Bears’ tight end group into the 2016 season

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Bears tight end Zach Miller makes a catch during Training Camp practice in Bourbonnais on July 31st.

BOURBONNAIS – His time to shine has been over a half-decade in the making. It could have been sooner, but in this league injuries can skew a timeline.

They can keep you out of an NFL game from 2011 through 2015. They can rob a football player of their prime years and sometimes end a career all together.

Perhaps that’s what Zach Miller was contemplating when a foot injury ended his Bears season before it could start in the preseason of 2014. But another shotin 2015, a breakthrough game in San Diego then an injury to a starter and suddenly Miller wasn’t just back on the field.

He was a prime target, a receiving threat and the future at a position in transition for the franchise. Finally, Miller has found a home. It’s a place where he now has greater responsibility than at any point in his eight years in the NFL.

“Nah,” said Miller of feeling more pressure as the Bears’ No. 1 tight end as training camp starts.

He should feel a sense of satisfaction after dealing with a copious amount of frustration during his first seven NFL seasons. After playing in 29 games for the Jaguars in 2009 and 2010 with 41 catches, he was limited to four games due to injury in 2011. He was on Injured Reserve the first six weeks of the 2012 season and then was released.

Miller then signed with the Buccaneers in 2013 but was released before the season began. He signed with the Bears in 2014 but an injured foot knocked him out of the plans before the season even started. New Bears GM Ryan Pace elected to bring Miller back for one more tryout in 2015 and was rewarded for the faith.

In 15 games in Chicago, his first in the NFL in nearly four years, Miller caught 34 passes for 439 yards and five touchdowns. In the final eight games of the season he caught 31 of those passes and all of his touchdowns as he assumed the top tight end role following the season-ending rib injury to Martellus Bennett.

When he was traded to the Patriots in March, the top spot at the end of the offensive line was all his.

“I don’t think anybody is going to put more pressure on me than myself to perform well and be that playmaker,” said Miller. “I don’t feel any added pressure at this point.”

Still Miller will have to be a leader for a Bears group of tight ends that has four players on the current training camp roster who have two-or-less years experience in the NFL. The last time Miller was a major player in a tight end room he was just in his third year in the NFL, so how will he handle the reverse role?

“There are certain times when you see things now it’s teaching moments or things like that. But that’s a collective group,” said Miller. “It’s kinda been that way in  my eight years in the NFL as far as you have a group of guys in that room and if you see things you can all teach each other. When the moment arises you take that opportunity and have that teaching moment there.”

He won’t be completely alone. Six-year veteran Rob Housler joins him in the tight end room as he did late last season while seven-year vet Tony Moeaki joins the fold. He is no stranger to injuries having lost the 2011 and 2013 seasons to major injuries which have bounced him on the roster of five-different teams since his career started in 2010.

“A good pro. Does everything right in and out, up and down, lines up right. Knows his stuff,” said Miller of Moeaki. “Similar situation where he’s had some unfortunate things pop up throughout his career but he’s a good football player and he’s proven he can play.”

Even with a break-out season in 2015 Miller will still be trying to show that he’s ready for this challenge. As he starts the first week of training camp there is one thing which Miller is trying to tweak now that he’s the top guy in the tight end room.

“The thing that clearly I work on every year is the blocking stuff-run game, pass game,” said Miller. “There’s a ton of details that you’ve got to dive into. It’s all marrying up you handwork, footwork, hand placement, all those things. There are a ton of different things you work on a daily basis.”

At least he gets the shot to work on them after injuries took out a chunk of his career. Some haven’t been so lucky and don’t think the Bears’ top tight end doesn’t know it.