Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Zach Miller was not an expert on the Oakland Raiders' history of brilliant tight end play when the team drafted him two years ago. He has since become an authority on the subject.
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
Tight end Zach Miller could be poised to have a huge year for the Raiders.
Watching video and reading about the success of Dave Casper, Raymond Chester and Todd Christensen have inspired Miller and given him a feeling of responsibility. He wants to carry on the tradition of Silver and Black tight ends.
"There is a great tradition here," Miller said. "I've talked to Al Davis about the history and how important the tight end has been in Oakland. I've talked to Raymond Chester about it, and it's really important to me to continue what all those great players did. It's my turn now."
If the first two seasons of Miller's career are any indication, the Raiders have found themselves another star at the position. Miller caught 100 passes in his first two NFL seasons and has quickly developed into one of the best young players at his position. He's an easy choice as this season's AFC West emerging star.
Miller certainly has his backing from those in the organization. Oakland head coach Tom Cable offered this: "Good choice. He can be special."
Said Oakland star left cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha: "There's no doubt that Zach deserves that label. He's that guy."
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As Oakland tries to emerge from a miserable six-season span, it is young players like Miller who give Oakland hope.
Miller has great hands. Asomugha swears he's never seen him drop a ball, even in practice. He is a precise route runner and a fine blocker.
Miller and Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell have already built an outstanding rhythm together. Miller is by far Russell's favorite target. They bonded as rookies, Miller said, and when all else fails, Russell always looks for him.
Last season, Miller caught 56 passes for 778 yards for a respectable 13.9 yard per catch average. Miller feels like he is ready to take the next step in his career.
"I have a lot of confidence and really feel good in this offense," Miller said. "I think my game is ready to grow."
He has set high goals. With superstar Tony Gonzalez now in Atlanta, Miller knows there is an open spot on the AFC Pro Bowl team.
"That's where I want to get to -- I want to get to that level," Miller said. "The Pro Bowl is the next step for me, I hope."
Miller surely has his supporters. San Diego tight end Antonio Gates, now the best tight end in the conference with Gonzalez out of the mix, lauded Miller earlier this year. He said Miller is one of the most exciting tight ends to come into the league in recent years.
Asomugha said what makes Miller so effective is his combination of natural gifts and his work ethic.
"When you combine Zach's talent and how hard he works, great things are going to happen," Asomugha said. "We really have a great one in Zach."
Asomugha is most excited about Miller because he knows what his presence means to Russell. Asomugha laughed a
bout how Russell and Miller tried to get extra work together during the first four days of camp, when Cable kept the actual plays to a minimum in order to stress the fundamentals of the game.
"Even in those days, JaMarcus was trying to throw the ball to Zach -- and they would get in trouble because they weren't supposed to be doing that," Asomugha said. "There is a great chemistry there."
Miller doesn't just help his quarterback in the passing game. When Russell is called to hand the ball off to one of Oakland's trio of running backs -- Darren McFadden, Michael Bush or Justin Fargas -- he can rely on Miller as well. He is developing into a stalwart blocker.
Unlike many catch-first tight ends, Miller relishes the opportunity to block. He said the reason why he spends time on the blocking aspect of his game is simple.
"You can't be an elite tight end unless you block," Miller said. "I see a lot of tight ends with great hands, but they won't want to block. That won't work here. We run the ball a lot in Oakland. You have to know how to block."
A former offensive line coach, Cable bursts with pride when talking about Miller's blocking chops.
"That's what makes Zach so special because he isn't afraid to help in the blocking game," Cable said. "He understands blocking. He's understands the entire game."
And he understands the history of the tight end in Oakland as he tries to become the next great Raider at the position.