In the first Chicago Bears preseason contest of 2014, tight end Zach Miller caught 6 passes for 68 yards and 2 touchdowns. At the time, most felt the Bears had found a legitimate No. 2 tight end to complement Martellus Bennett.
Yet the following week, Miller broke his foot and was placed on season-ending IR. It was just another in a long line of setbacks for Miller, who was selected in the 6th round of the 2009 NFL Draft out of Nebraska-Omaha by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
After catching a combined 41 passes for 428 yards and 3 TDs his first two years in Jacksonville, Miller entered the 2011 season as the club's bona fide No. 1 tight end. Unfortunately, a dislocated shoulder four games into the season prematurely ended his third professional campaign.
The following preseason, he partially tore his Achilles tendon and his calf, which again landed him on IR. The Jaguars waived him before the 2013 season and Miller was then signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Yet a concussion in the preseason compelled the Bucs to waive him.
The foot injury in 2014 capped off a three-year, 12-game run of missed time in the NFL, during which he didn't play a single regular-season contest.
Fortunately for Miller, the Bears saw enough of him in 2014 to invite him back to training camp last year, where he quickly beat out Dante Rosario for the club's backup tight end position, despite not catching a single pass during the preseason.
In fact, Miller was an afterthought on offense through the first half of the season, catching just 3 passes for 35 yards and 0 TDs throught the first eight weeks.
Then, in Week 8, Miller made his presence felt, catching a one-handed game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. The following week, he caught 5 passes for 107 yards and 2 TDs.
After Bennett was sent home in Week 12, Miller took over the top spot at tight end, finishing the year with 34 catches for 439 yards and a team-high 5 receiving touchdowns.
For some perspective, Miller finished with the exact same receiving yardage as Bennett (439) but did it on 19 fewer catches.
The second half of the 2015 campaign was very good to Miller but should the Bears this off-season re-sign a 31-year-old with a long history of injuries?
The odds GM Ryan Pace either trades or cuts Bennett is very good. He was a distraction all of last year because of his desire for a new contract, from not showing up to voluntary workouts, to not even watching the Bears-Packers game on TV when he sat out due to a rib injury, to blowing up during a late-season practice (a common occurence for Bennett) that resulted in him being placed on IR with a "rib injury." By trading Brandon Marshall last year, the team set a precedent for players they don't feel are good fits for the locker room and Bennett is a borderline cancer.
If that happens, and even if it doesn't, the Bears should attempt to re-sign Miller to another one-year deal. He's already stated his desire to cash in this free agency to the tune of $4M-$5M, which is fine, as long as most of that is based on health-related incentives.
Miller has an extensive injury history and is always one play away from IR, so balancing out a larger contract by infusing it with health-based escalators will hedge the team's investment and protect them in case of another injury. It's the best a player with Miller's injury history can expect from any NFL team.
As for his $5M asking price, the Bears can just tranfer the money they'll save by cutting Bennett ($5.4M) to a more productive, team-oriented player.
Miller is going to have his suitors but after missing almost four straight seasons, it's doubtful any type of bidding war is going to ensue for a tight end on the wrong side of 30.
The Bears would be wise to invest in a backup through either free agency or the draft, in case Miller is hit by another injury, but while on the field, they can count on him as a legitimate No. 1 in new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains' offense.