Miller leads a light TE class


The resurgence of the tight end position had to slow down at some point.

This year is a "light" end draft. Virginia's Heath Miller, who might have been a top-10 prospect, won't be able to work out and get a legitimate 40 time until May 1 at the earliest, well past the start of the NFL draft on April 23. Alex Smith of Stanford is the next best tight end and his name keeps getting confused with the Utah quarterback who could be the first player selected. The only other tight end rated in the top 100 is Kevin Everett of Miami and he had shoulder surgery in January.

Miller's sports hernia caught the NFL off guard. The league was getting used to finding tight end prospects talented enough to come into the league and change offenses. After the likes of Tony Gonzalez of the Chiefs, Randy McMichael of the Dolphins and Jason Witten of the Cowboys, scouts were getting used to bringing back "can't miss" reports on tight ends. Others such as Eric Johnson of the 49ers and Jermaine Wiggins of the Vikings came out of nowhere to become viable receiving threats. Antonio Gates surprised everyone by coming off the Kent State basketball court and developing into a legitimate NFL star in San Diego.

Miller's nickname at Virginia was "Big Money," but where he will go in the first round is a "Big Mystery." Because he's coming off hernia surgery, the team that invests a first-round pick on him will be guessing on his speed, among other things.

"I ran a 4.8 40 a couple of years ago," said Miller, who anticipates his speed hasn't changed. "I'm rehabbing now, and I'm working on my agility. I'm doing everything I can. I've got to heal up and be ready to play football."

Tapes of his college career indicate that playing shouldn't be a problem. He's considered the best tight end ever to come out of the ACC. He caught 144 passes for 1,703 yards and 20 touchdowns in three seasons at Virginia. As a redshirted sophomore in 2003, he caught 70 passes for 835 yards.

Last fall was a challenge. Sometime in the middle of the season, he suffered a hernia injury that kept getting worse. Despite the injury, he kept playing and ended up with 41 catches for 541 yards.

"In the last three games, I couldn't open up and run," said Miller, who decided to bypass his senior season. "When I tried to open up, I simply couldn't."

After the season, the news got worse. His doctor told him he needed surgery, certainly coming at a bad time since he had his heart set on turning pro.

"The doctor explained to me that my muscles down there were like frayed ropes," Miller said. "I'm still on schedule on my rehab and I'm making progress."

The decision was tough. Miller had accomplished a great deal in college, but knew turning pro without being able to work out for scouts was risky.

"I thought about it initially," Miller said of the problem of not running for teams before the draft. "I feel like I played the best of my ability in college and did all I can do. Whether that put me in the draft, that's where it put me."

Through it all, Miller is still considered the best tight end in the draft and should be a first-round pick. The expectations go all the way back to his redshirt freshman year when his older Virginia teammates dubbed him "Big Money."

"I wasn't sure if they were joking at first," Big Money said.

They weren't. The only weird part about the nickname is his humble background. He grew up in Swords Creek, Va., population 3,500. The mayor there owns the only hardware store. The fire department has 30 volunteers, including the mayor.

"My graduating class had a little over 100 students and the school has about 400 kids total," Miller said. "There are six divisions of football in Virginia and my high school was in the second lowest."

Despite the bad timing of his injury, Miller realizes he's actually lucky to be coming out this year. Tight ends have seen their production increase in the last few years in the NFL. Gonzalez, Gates, Jeremy Shockey and others have added so much athleticism to the position that their roles are being interchanged with the wide receivers.

The days of tight ends just being undersized offensive tackles are gone.

"Those tight ends have created great opportunities for this year for the tight ends and for years to come," Miller said. "I think the success of the tight ends over the past couple of years have created a higher priority on the position."

Too bad scouts and quarterback don't see as many Millers in this year's draft. They were becoming spoiled.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.