NFC North: Zach Miller

CHICAGO -- Finally, it seemed Zach Miller conquered all the injuries that were derailing his NFL career, only to watch it come crashing down Thursday during Chicago’s 20-19 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Miller
Miller
Playing against the team that drafted him in 2009, Miller suffered a foot injury during the second quarter and was carted off the field. Bears quarterback Jordan Palmer, once a teammate of Miller’s in Jacksonville, called the injury “heartbreaking.”

“Zach is a guy I’ve been trying to spread the word on,” Palmer explained. “I tried to get Arizona to get him last year. He’s worked so hard. He was dealt a really bad hand last year, and he just worked through it. I talked to him throughout the whole process. He’s one of my best buddies. He’s had an unbelievable camp. This is the kind of camp when you come off the streets, this is the kind of camp you dream of.”

Perhaps it is now a nightmare for Miller.

Making his Chicago Bears debut against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, Miller caught six passes for 68 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Prior to that, Miller had impressed the coaching staff by taking advantage of every repetition given to him, and those snaps certainly increased when tight end Martellus Bennett was suspended indefinitely.

Miller wasn’t available to speak with the media after the game. At halftime, Miller received X-rays, but was expected to undergo more tests later.

“You’re patient. There weren’t a lot of opportunities early, but when he got those opportunities, he made the most of them,” Palmer said. “Goes in the game last week and has six catches and two touchdowns, and we’re riding high. He’s so confident. And then to get one of those injuries; it's not a work-ethic injury. It’s not that he’s out of shape or has bad technique. It’s just a total bad luck injury.”

Miller played in 29 games over his first two years in the NFL, but since 2011, he’s participated in just four contests.

Bears coach Marc Trestman said the club would know more Friday about the extent of Miller’s injury.

“He’s going to rehab and do everything they ask him to do, and he’s going to contribute somewhere,” Palmer said. “If it’s here, hopefully he comes back. Whatever his situation is, he’s going to play a long time in this league because he is a great player.”
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Lovie Smith finished 10-6 in his final season with the Chicago Bears before being fired. Marc Trestman comes in and leads the Bears to an 8-8 record in 2013. Yet expectations soar here on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University, where crowds for training camp practices routinely swell to 10,000.

It’s easy to see why. For a fan base accustomed to hard-nosed defense and shaky-at-best offense, Trestman flipped the script in 2013, taking Chicago’s attack to new heights with a major assist from general manager Phil Emery’s shrewd personnel moves.

The Bears broke record after record on offense last season, and the defense stumbled to historic lows.

If Trestman and Emery could basically work a miracle on offense in just one season, why can’t they do it on the other side of the ball in 2014?

“[I] feel very good about the competitive depth and the fights for positions that we're going to have,” Emery said. “Out of the three camps, I would say this camp has the best competitive level among the roster from 1 to 90.”

Emery achieved that by loading up on defenders: acquiring a mix of players poised to hit the sweet spot of their careers in Lamarr Houston and Willie YoungJared Allen, and drafting potential stars such as first-round pick Kyle Fuller. The Bears bolstered those moves with an overhaul of the scheme and additions to the defensive coaching staff.

“We started [with], ‘What could we do to get this team better?’” Trestman said. “I sat down with Phil [Emery], and we began to lay out a road map together on how we were going to rebuild this football team, and here we are at a stage where I don’t think there’s a player in our meeting room who doesn’t feel like there’s hope and high expectations. Now, it’s time to go to work.”

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJay Cutler is more comfortable in coach Marc Trestman's system, and all of his offensive weapons are healthy and ready to go.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. Jay Cutler’s grasp of the offense is firmer in Year 2 of Trestman’s system, and his performance this year at camp is significantly different from in 2013. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said Cutler is his own problem solver and is making on-field adjustments so instinctively that he doesn’t need guidance from the staff. In his first camp under Trestman, Cutler misfired routinely, and there were concerns about whether he’d be effective in the regular season. After one particularly bad session in 2013, Trestman gathered Cutler and the other quarterbacks in the middle of the field in what could be described as a turning point. That’s not happening this year at camp as Cutler has become a bona fide field general.

2. Brandon Marshall is Brandon Marshall. He wasn’t at camp in 2013. He was coming off hip surgery that hindered his season preparation. Fully healthy now with an offseason to condition, Marshall is ready to go -- and with full comprehension of the offensive system. Throw in Alshon Jeffery’s ascension and you have the makings of something lethal on offense. The duo has certainly looked that way at camp as both routinely make so many eye-popping plays that Cutler could almost throw it up blindly and one of them would come down with the ball.

3. There’s a nastiness on defense and intense focus reminiscent of the units put on the field in Smith’s heyday. Practicing against one of the best offenses in the league, the defense should be losing more than it does at training camp. But this group routinely bests the offense, with dominating play by the front seven as a hallmark. Chalk it up to a combination of personnel additions and a culture shift brought about by an overhaul of the scheme and the acquisition of no-nonsense, get-in-your-face coaches such as Paul Pasqualoni, Reggie Herring and Clint Hurtt.

[+] EnlargeRyan Mundy
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastThe Bears brought Ryan Mundy in to compete at safety, but the position, at least in camp, continues to look shaky.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. The defensive line makes plays at training camp. The corners and linebackers make plays. But you rarely see the safeties making an impact. That could be a result of a lack of chemistry because, with both spots up for grabs, the Bears are using several combinations at the position involving players such as Ryan Mundy, rookie Brock Vereen, Danny McCray, Adrian Wilson and M.D. Jennings. Horrid play at this position in 2013 contributed significantly to the defense’s demise, and we haven’t seen many indications at camp that the Bears will turn that around in 2014.

2. Protecting Cutler could become an issue if some of the injuries suffered by the team's offensive linemen linger. Guard Kyle Long (ankle) and tackle Jordan Mills (foot) missed the preseason opener, and the latter was seen wearing a walking boot when the club returned to training camp after that game. Reserve center Brian de la Puente is expected to miss time to a knee injury, and reserve guard/tackle Eben Britton still hasn’t returned from a strained hamstring suffered earlier at camp.

3. Cutler hasn’t played an entire 16-game season since 2009. So naturally, you’d think at some point in 2014 the Bears will have to turn to the backup quarterback. The problem is the candidates vying for the No. 2 job -- Jordan Palmer and Jimmy Clausen -- have done little to inspire confidence the way Josh McCown did last year at training camp. For the most part, Palmer and Clausen have been merely average at camp, misfiring on occasion and making mistakes typical of players acclimating themselves to a scheme. The duo needs to pick it up or the Bears could wind up looking outside the current roster for a suitable No. 2.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Chris Conte says he’s the best athlete in Chicago’s secondary. He needs to prove it, which he'll finally have a chance to do now that he's off the physically unable to perform list. Conte certainly possesses the athleticism to be a playmaker on the back end, provided he regains his confidence. But time is running out for Conte to make a real push for one of the two open jobs at safety. What Conte has going for him right now is that none of the safeties vying for the starting jobs is making plays at camp.
  • The Bears hired martial arts expert Joe Kim to teach the defensive linemen hand fighting techniques as part of the scheme overhaul that requires the front four players to be technicians with their hands. It’ll be interesting to see how the results manifest themselves on the field. Every day after practice at camp, several defensive linemen -- and even some defensive backs -- work intricate hand fighting moves with Kim for several minutes. The players say the moves become almost natural once routinely put into practice on the field. We’ll see whether Kim’s assistance plays a role in the front four anchoring a run defense that finished last in 2013.
  • Zach Miller and Matthew Mulligan are pushing Dante Rosario hard for the No. 2 job at tight end. Miller is more of a move tight end, and Mulligan is a classic in-line blocker who shows some impressive skills as a receiver. The two have received extra reps because of Martellus Bennett's suspension.

Bears Camp Report: Day 13

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
5:20
PM ET
BOURBONAIS, Ill. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Chicago Bears training camp:
  • Morning showers soaked the practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University on Tuesday. So the Bears moved their session across the street to Ward Field, where the club could practice on FieldTurf. “The players handled the transition today and the weather. We moved some things around, went indoors for our walk-through, came out here for the first time in full pads, got a lot of work done, moved some guys around and we made it through the day,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “We wanted to make sure we got this one in. We had Plan B and Plan C. Plan A worked pretty good and we got a lot of work done.” According to a school official, the same company that installed the surface inside the Walter Payton Center laid the FieldTurf at ONU, with the work being completed approximately three weeks ago. The school’s soccer teams used the field for the first time on Monday, and the Bears were the first football team to put the surface to use.
  • Zach Miller continues to state a strong case to win the job as the club’s No. 2 tight end. Miller put together another solid outing, catching every ball thrown his way during the various team periods.
  • Backup quarterback Jordan Palmer struggled during Tuesday’s workout, throwing a pair of interceptions to safety Chris Conte and defensive end Willie Young. The INT thrown to Young hit the defensive end squarely in the chest. Conte secured his pick in the end zone during a red-zone drill on a pass intended for Micheal Spurlock. Trestman declined to say whether Jimmy Clausen had overtaken Palmer on the depth chart. “I don’t think we’ve had any movement there at all,” Trestman said. “We’ll move people around. We’ll see how they play in different environments and we’ll make a decision when we have to.”
  • Trestman said “it’s too soon to talk about” whether Conte will play Thursday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Conte came off the physically unable to perform list on Monday and has practiced just two days.
  • Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray continued to take snaps at safety with the starters. The club did work in Conte and Adrian Wilson with the starters as well.
  • Brandon Marshall spent time catching punts during special-teams periods, but don’t expect the club to use him in that capacity during games. “Brandon Marshall likes to get into some drills that maybe he shouldn’t be in,” special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said.
  • Non-participants for Tuesday’s session included Chris Williams (hamstring), Eben Britton (hamstring), Jordan Mills (foot), Brian De La Puente (knee), Marquess Wilson (collarbone), Isaiah Frey (hamstring) and Lance Briggs. Briggs isn’t injured. He was given a day off, which Trestman routinely does for veterans.
  • Keep an eye out for linebacker Jerry Franklin, who is taking snaps with the starters on some of the coverage and return units on special teams. He’s also been taking reps with the second team on defense.
2014 free agents: Dante Rosario.

Bennett
The good: Free-agent acquisition Martellus Bennett finished with 65 catches for 759 yards and five touchdowns as he produced career highs in receptions, and receiving yards while tying a career high for TDs. Bennett ranked eighth among NFL tight ends in catches, tied for ninth in yards and tied for 12th in TD receptions. Bennett is now one of eight tight ends in the league to gain more than 1,000 receiving yards in addition to catching at least 10 TD passes since 2012. Bennett also finished third on the team in receiving yardage and fourth in receptions, providing Chicago the threat down the middle of the field it had lacked in years past.

The bad: Bennett was plagued by nagging injuries, and that limited his effectiveness as a blocker on occasion, especially in the first three games. Bennett gave up two sacks and was responsible for six hurries on the season. The Bears often brought in offensive tackle Eben Britton as an extra blocker at the tight end position. Rosario played in 15 games with three starts, but caught only one pass for 13 yards while promising prospect Fendi Onobun spent the entire season on Chicago’s practice squad.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Bennett ($6.025 million), Zach Miller ($645,000), Onobun ($570,000).

Draft priority: Low. Bennett is an ideal fit for what the Bears do offensively, and if one of the club’s younger players such as Miller or Onobun steps up, the team could be set for years to come at the position. Athletically, Onobun is probably the most talented tight end on the roster. But he’s struggled to make the transition into the NFL game, and has been plagued by concentration lapses. Miller, meanwhile, is a former fifth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and caught 41 passes over his first two seasons in the NFL, but has since bounced from Tampa Bay to Chicago. It’s unlikely the Bears will bring back Rosario.

INDIANAPOLIS -- If you just saw the blur of a blue parka sprinting down the streets of downtown Indianapolis, well, don't worry. That was just me hustling back to my laptop, slobbering and panting all the way, in an effort to start blogging the surprising news of the Green Bay Packers' two-year contract agreement with tight end Jermichael Finley.

Finley's status as a pending free agent had drawn widespread debate on this blog. Some of you were nervous about making a huge commitment, both in cash and cap space, to a player who could politely be called a young 24. Others were worried how he might react to receiving a relatively cheap franchise tag assignment of $5.5 million, and many of you were concerned about a key part of the Packers' offensive success in recent seasons bolting to another team.

[+] EnlargeJermichael Finley
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireJermichael Finley, who agreed to a two-year extension with the Packers, caught 55 passes for 767 yards and eight TDs last season.
My educated guess is that you could find members of the Packers organization with similarly split viewpoints. So in the end, it made sense to offer Finley a deal that averages about $7.5 million per year -- the annual market rate for top-flight tight ends -- but falls way short of the long-term commitment that the highest-paid tight ends in the NFL have received. (It's worth noting that $7.5 million is about the midpoint of the franchise figures for tight ends and receivers. We discussed earlier Wednesday the possibility of the sides compromising on the issue of what position Finley truly plays.)

Why would Finley take this deal rather than seek one that paid him the way the Seattle Seahawks paid Zach Miller (five years, $34 million with $17 million guaranteed) or the San Francisco 49ers paid Vernon Davis (five years, $37 million with $23 million guaranteed) in the past year? Finley might not have gotten that kind of money elsewhere, but Finley didn't give himself a chance to find out. In the end, his decision represents a calculated bet. Finley is thinking that two more years of putting up big numbers for the Packers will put him in that position. After the 2013 season, remember, Finley will still only be 26 years old.

I don't blame the Packers for stopping short of the kind of deals Miller and Davis got. A player's second contract is typically his most lucrative payday, but Finley has not had a typical career. If all goes well, the Packers -- or someone else -- will pay him his market-adjusted Miller/Davis deal in the spring of 2014.

I'll be back in a bit with a discussion of what the Packers might do, if anything, with their franchise tag.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD