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With Zach Miller out, rookie Adam Shaheen has a chance to break out

The day the Bears drafted tight end Adam Shaheen out of tiny Ashland University with the 45th overall pick in the second round, general manager Ryan Pace rejected the notion that Shaheen’s small-school pedigree made him a project as a rookie.

“I think he’s projected to play early. We spent a lot of time on that,” Pace said. “It’s [a] big jump, but he has the physical skill set to make that jump and we’re confident in that. We’re excited about what he can add to our team right now.”

While Shaheen indeed has contributed as a rookie, the assumption was that his contribution would be catching passes, bowling over defenders and scoring touchdowns in “Baby Gronk”-like fashion. Instead, most of the 6-6, 270-pound rookie’s impact has been as a blocker in pass protection and the run game. He has one reception for a two-yard touchdown, which came in Week 3 against the Steelers.

And to his credit, Shaheen has embraced the role and is proud of his progress. He had a key block on Jordan Howard’s 19-yard walk-off touchdown against the Steelers in Week 3. And another one on Howard’s 50-yard run against the Saints.

Bears rookie tight end Adam Shaheen (87) clobbers Panthers safety Jairus Byrd (31) on a pass play to Zach Miller (86) in the Bears' 17-3 victory on Oct. 22 at Soldier Field. (Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

“From night and day, I feel like,” Shaheen said when asked about his blocking. “That’s what my role has been. That’s what I’ve been focused on.

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“That was the big question. I think I’ve answered at least [some] questions on that. Now it’s time to put it all together.”

Indeed it is. As the Bears recover from the shock of Zach Miller’s traumatic knee injury, the reality is setting in that Miller’s absence leaves a gaping hole in the offense, particularly at tight end, where Miller’s 11 touchdown receptions the past two-plus seasons are the most on the team. He had 20 receptions for 236 yards and two touchdowns this season.

“Zach’s our guy,” Shaheen said. “But he’s not gonna be there to tell everybody what they’re doing and do all that stuff. So somebody’s going to have to step up. I know myself and the other tight ends are ready to help out.”

It’ll be a key test for offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains to get production in the pass game from his tight ends in the second half without Miller. Dion Sims is a former college basketball player at Michigan State whose production as a receiver hasn’t matched his athleticism. Daniel Brown, a former wide receiver who averaged 15.9 yards per catch in three seasons at James Madison, figures to get additional snaps with Miller out. And second-year tight end Ben Braunecker, healthy again after missing three weeks with a bone bruise in his foot, could be promoted from the practice squad.

Brown, signed off waivers from the Ravens in Week 8 last season, had 16 receptions for 124 yards (7.8 average) and a touchdown in five games after Miller suffered a season-ending broken foot against the Giants last season.

“These aren’t the circumstances I would want to have gotten the opportunity. I feel terrible the way it happened,” Brown said. “But it’s an opportunity for me to show my improvement from last year; show that I can be trusted in this offense when my number’s called. I want to prove I can be a good all-around tight end.”

Sims and Brown likely will get bigger opportunities. But most of all, this is a chance for Shaheen to blossom.

“I’m excited to do whatever they ask me to do,” Shaheen said. “Blocking and sticking my head in there and mashing skulls — I’ve loved it. When I get the rock thrown my way, I love that, too. But tight end isn’t a one-dimensional thing. We all love all aspects of it. That’s football.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com