NAPA, Calif. (AP) -If JaMarcus Russell was the crown jewel of the Oakland Raiders' 2007 draft then tight end Zach Miller was their diamond in the rough.
The second-round pick out of Arizona State not only proved to be a steady downfield threat, setting a franchise record for rookie tight ends, but Miller also developed into Oakland's best blocking tight end.
That he didn't put up better numbers was a result of the Raiders needing to capitalize on his blocking, a predicament Miller finds himself in once again as Oakland transitions to the Russell era.
``I take it as whatever is going to help the team,'' Miller said. ``Obviously as an offense we need to put more points on the board than we did last year, but teams are going to blitz us. There's always a tendency to blitz young quarterbacks.''
Miller caught 44 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns in 2007, tops among all NFL rookie tight ends including Greg Olson, the first-round pick (31st overall) of the Chicago Bears who had 39 receptions, 391 yards and two TDs.
Yet coach Lane Kiffin believes Miller could have been an even bigger factor in Oakland's passing game had he not been needed to help block.
``If we had been a different team last year with the ability to pass protect better I think he would have had 60, 65 catches,'' Kiffin said. ``But we kept him in so many times in pass protection to help protect with our tackles that he wasn't able to get out as much as we'd like him to. It's just unfortunate for Zach as far as numbers go because of that situation.''
Oakland's offensive line surrendered 41 sacks last season while quarterbacks Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper combined for 20 fumbles. Several of the fumbles came after the quarterbacks were hit in the backfield by opposing defensive players who easily broke through the Raiders' pass protection.
The team tried to upgrade in the offseason, adding left tackle Kwame Harris and re-signing right tackle Cornell Green. Jake Grove, who missed half of last season with a knee injury, replaces Jeremy Newberry at center.
So far, though, the new combination of offensive linemen haven't made much of a difference in the pass protection. Russell has been pressured heavily by Oakland's defense throughout training camp and spent a good portion of his brief appearance against San Francisco last week on the run.
Miller also played sparingly and did not catch a pass, instead spending much of his night blocking.
``I take great pride in my blocking,'' Miller said. ``I'm a lot better than last year. In college you don't play against that type of talent every day. Here you're against guys like (two-time Pro Bowl defensive end) Derrick Burgess all the time.''
Miller made a nice play in training camp Tuesday, breaking free from linebacker Thomas Howard to haul in a short touchdown pass from Russell. Miller also made a nice block to help spring running back Justin Fargas during a team drill later in the afternoon.
Meanwhile Oakland's other tight ends continue to jockey for playing time behind Miller. Tony Stewart has been bothered by a toe injury and appears to have fallen behind John Madsen for the No. 2 tight end spot, while Chris Wagner and Darrell Strong are longshots to make the 53-man roster. Strong suffered a separated shoulder in practice Monday and was held out of Tuesday's workout.
None of the four compare to Miller, though.
``The thing about Zach is we do so many things with him,'' Kiffin said. ``With Madsen being the second tight end, we really can't afford to put him out because he can't protect the way that Zach can. I think Zach is going to continue to improve and will play in this league for a long, long time. He does so many things that you don't even see.
``The blocking and things he did last year, guys he was going to face, really premiere pass rushers in this league, that we put him on 1-on-1 at times and he continued to respond.''

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