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Emma: Bears Banking On Tight End Production From Zach Miller

By Chris Emma--

(CBS) America learned the feel-good story of Bears tight end Zach Miller on a Monday night in November. The 31-year-old Miller caught his first touchdown after missing three seasons with three injuries, making an improbable diving catch in a win against the Chargers.

Following the game, Miller's phone was filled with calls and texts. As fans were singing his praises, Miller knew this was only the beginning. The Bears believe so, too, giving Miller a two-year deal this offseason.

"I've always felt like that's kind of been what my goal was," Miller said. "I'm confident in my abilities to do that. I'm just excited, grateful and happy to be here with this organization. Chicago is where I wanted to be. I'm glad that it worked out."

Miller's new contract came on the heels of the Bears trading 2014 Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett to the Patriots. At Halas Hall, Bennett's commitment was called into his question, and his loud personality had run its course.

Just a week after Miller broke onto the scene on that Monday in San Diego, he hauled in five receptions and a pair of touchdowns for a career-best 107 yards in a win over the Rams. He had 34 catches -- 31 from the win over the Chargers and beyond -- and took over when Bennett was shut down for the season with a ribs injury.

Now, Bennett is gone and Miller is the Bears' future at tight end.

"I'm excited about the season," Miller said. "I'm just really looking forward to getting back and seeing all the guys putting our best foot forward."

Health for Miller is a natural concern, and the Bears enter this season hoping Miller maintains his after missing just Week 17 in 2015, because there aren't natural solutions behind Miller on the depth chart.

Veteran Rob Housler was re-signed to a one-year deal after being added to the roster late last season, though he's more of a run-blocking tight end. Khari Lee is a raw option who needs plenty of development. This offseason, the Bears asked veteran defensive tackle Greg Scruggs to become a 310-pound tight end, just to fill depth.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace didn't see any suitable fits in free agency, then admitted after the draft that there weren't any values worth jumping for, so they went the route of undrafted free agents.

Undrafted rookie Joe Sommers of Wisconsin-Oshkosh was scooped up. And perhaps the answer for the No. 2 tight end spot could be Ben Braunecker, the undrafted pickup from Harvard. Braunecker had surprisingly fallen out of the draft.

"Projections had me anywhere from 4-6, and I sat there on draft day for about seven hours on my couch with an ESPN camera in my face watching every pick go by," Braunecker said. "That definitely puts a chip on my shoulder. I want to make this team, I'm driven to make this team. I'm really thankful the Bears gave me an opportunity."

Braunecker carries aspirations to become an infectious disease doctor if football doesn't pan out, but the Bears hope he sticks on the roster. He stands at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds and possesses quality pass-catching abilities. Braunecker was named first-team FCS All-American after hauling in 48 receptions for 850 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

It will be a tough road for Braunecker, one that includes beating out veteran tight ends and Sommers.

"A nice, strong, reliable tight end is what the Bears are looking for right now," Braunecker said of himself.

Competition will be steady at tight end, like most other positions on the Bears' depth chart. OTAs mark the beginning of those position battles next week, and they will carry through mini-camps into training camp in late July.

The Bears have plenty of question marks around the offense, namely at running back and on the offensive line. Miller believes he can be the answer at tight end, with the Bears hoping the spot becomes a strength on their revamped roster.

"We put some pieces in place where I feel like we've improved," Miller said. "Hopefully, we start out fast and let it take over from there."

Chris Emma covers the Chicago sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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