BOURBONNAIS — If you asked the Bears which of their departed veterans they missed the most, running back Matt Forte would probably be first; guard Matt Slauson a very close second and tight end Martellus Bennett a distant third.
But Bennett’s absence loomed a little larger Monday with the news that his replacement, Zach Miller, is undergoing concussion protocol and out indefinitely. It remains to be seen if even a healthy Miller can be as productive as an all-purpose tight end in a full-time role as Bennett, who at his best was a Pro Bowl player in 2014. But the loss of Bennett — traded to the Patriots for a net fifth-round draft pick (acquiring a fourth, but trading a sixth) — left the Bears extremely thin at a position they will be counting on heavily in Dowell Loggains’ run-first offense.
Miller’s concussion is a particular disappointment for a player who finally kicked a major injury habit last year when he played in 15 games and caught 34 passes for 439 yards (12.9 avg.) and five touchdowns — most of it in the second half of the season when he replaced Bennett as the No. 1 tight end. The affable Miller was a well-deserving Brian Piccolo Award winner after having played in just four games in the previous four seasons — missing most of three seasons with injuries.
He seemed fine after practice Sunday afternoon when he met the media, but — just his luck — had delayed symptoms. “I think he felt a little funny [Sunday] night, didn’t feel as good [Monday] morning,” coach John Fox said. “So we shut it down and he’ll go through the protocol.”
With Miller out, the Bears had three tight ends with NFL experience in practice Monday — and they had a combined eight receptions for 68 yards and one touchdown last season. Tony Moeaki, the Wheaton-Warrenville South product, had two productive years with the Chiefs in 2010 and 2012, but has struggled with injuries and played in just 19 games and caught 11 passes the past three seasons. Rob Housler had two productive years with the Cardinals in 2012-13, but has caught 13 passes with no touchdowns the last two seasons. Only Khari Lee was with the Bears last season — he had seven starts but only 126 offensive snaps as a rookie last season — and he’s primarily a blocker. He had one reception for seven yards.
Greg Scruggs, a 6-3, 277-pound converted defensive lineman who signed with the Bears last December and had a sack in the season-finale against the Lions, is getting a good look at tight end in training camp. So is Gannon Sinclair, who was on the practice squad as a rookie last year. The other two tight ends on the roster are undrafted rookies — Ben Braunecker from Harvard and Joseph Sommers from Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Fox put the best possible light on the Miller absence — it’s an opportunity for somebody else to establish himself.
“It’s huge,” Fox said. “You get sick of hearing it, but I’m going to keep using it — and that’s the next-man-up [philosophy]. The old Wally Pipp story. Everybody starts off a nobody — sometimes you don’t know that until they get the opportunity. So it gives you a chance to look at other guys and we don’t wait for anybody.”
They won’t wait for Zach Miller, but they very likely will miss him if he’s out for very long. And if the worst-case scenario ensues, they could end up missing Martellus Bennett much more than they thought.