Oakland Raider tight end Zach Miller is on the verge of making his first Pro Bowl this upcoming season due to the increased tight end depth on the roster. No one was happier to see owner Mr. Al Davis improve the depth at the tight end position this offseason than the third year tight end out of Arizona State.
This off-season, Davis and the Raiders used a sixth round draft pick to select tight end Brandon Myers out of Iowa. He also signed undrafted rookie free agent Chris O’Neil out of Boise State.
Oakland then signed free agent John Paul Foschi, a former Raider fullback, to compete for a roster spot at tight end. Darrell Strong was promoted from the practice squad to increase competition during OTAs and training camp. Both are considered longshots to make the roster.
Last season Oakland broke training camp with three tight ends. Other than Miller, Oakland featured John Madsen and Tony Stewart. Madsen a converted wide receiver turned tight end project, failed to make an impact after bulking up. Madsen was not brought back for the upcoming season.
Stewart primarily a special teams player, showed little value on the offensive side of the ball. Stewart was re-signed for 2009 and will face much stiffer competition securing a roster spot out of training camp.
Head coach Tom Cable spoke on several occasions throughout the off-season about getting Miller “married” to the right tight end. Cable essentially wanted a true blocking tight end to do the dirty work that the position entails.
The team also lacked the depth at the position to effectively run two tight end power formations, particularly in short yardage situations. Expect Cable and the Raiders to run more double tight end sets in 2009.
More than anything, Cable is looking to alleviate some of the blocking responsibilities from Miller to free him up to use his 6'5" frame and soft hands more in the passing game. The heavy physical workload placed on Miller last season as a blocker contributed to a sports hernia which required off-season surgery.
Even with the sports hernia, Miller was Oakland’s most productive offensive player last season, and third year quarterback JaMarcus Russell’s favorite target. Miller led the Raiders with 56 receptions and 778 receiving yards, despite playing in pain. His 2008 numbers ranked him amongst the NFL’s top tight ends and cemented his status as a legitimate receiving threat.
With the emergence of young receivers Chaz Schilens and Johnnie Lee Higgins, and Oakland spending their first round pick on speed merchant Darius Heyward-Bey, opposing defenses will not be able allocate as much pass coverage toward Miller this season as they did in 2008.
Miller will also benefit from improved quarterback play this season, one way or another. Whether it is an improved JaMarcus Russell, or the fiery vet Jeff Garcia, Miller can expect better passes thrown his way in 2009.
Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez even felt compelled to offer Miller some guidance last season after witnessing him get repeatedly pummeled by opposing defenders due to the fact he was consistently getting hung out to dry by his quarterback all season long. When a longtime division rival like Gonzalez (Gonzalez was a Kansas City Chief at the time) offers a hated Raider support, you know things must really be rough.
The Raiders already sport one the NFL’s most dynamic rushing attacks, showcasing three quality running backs in Darren McFadden, Michael Bush and Justin Fargas. With upgrades to the offensive line coming in form of former Dolphins center Samson Satele, and former Jaguars tackle Khalif Barnes, the 2009 Raiders may finally have enough surrounding talent to allow Miller to perform to his Pro Bowl potential.
Had he played for a better team last year, Miller could have easily joined All Pro teammates Nnamdi Asomugha and Shane Lechler in Honolulu for his first Pro Bowl. If the Cable guy can install the right blocking compliment for his star pass catching tight end, then Zach Miller might need to book his flight for the 2010 Pro Bowl in Miami early.