Tight end position has joined injury chaos

Zach MillerWhile the defense deals with the sudden loss of top-notch nose tackle Brandon Mebane for the rest of the season, the offense is making plans to go on without Zach Miller — perhaps forever.

With Luke Willson trying to rally from a sprained ankle and Cooper Helfet dealing with a bum knee (and Anthony McCoy on IR), the Hawks’ only two healthy tight ends right now are guys they just signed.

In an apropos circumstance, Tony Moeaki figures to play his first game since 2012 against his original team, the Kansas City Chiefs.

Moeaki, 27, was a third-round pick by Kansas City in 2010 and seemed to be a rising star at the position that year, catching 47 passes for 556 yards and three touchdowns.

But then the injuries hit. He spent the next season on injured reserve after suffering an ACL injury in a preseason game. He returned to the starting role in 2012 after Kevin Boss was injured in Week 2, and Moeaki caught 33 passes for 453 yards and a touchdown.

Then he missed the 2013 season with a shoulder injury. The Chiefs released him in October 2013 and he signed with Buffalo in December. The Bills had placed him on IR in late August, but they cut him with an injury settlement a week later.

To play in the NFL, two things are needed above all others: skill and health. Moeaki obviously has the former, but he has greatly lacked the latter.

Apparently he is healthy for now, as the Hawks picked him up before Week 10.

“We kept him out last week because we thought it was too soon,” Carroll said. “It’s still early, still really quick to put a guy in there and expect him to do everything. But he is a veteran. He does understand it and he’s picked things up really well. He’s had a very good 10 days with us so far. We will see how far he can take it, but we’re counting on him to play.”

The Hawks also are hoping Willson and Helfet can play, with the latter seeming probable (he practiced Thursday) and the former on the positive side of questionable (he was limited Thursday). And they added RaShaun Allen, who had bounced on and off the practice squad until he landed on Minnesota’s taxi unit.

Meanwhile, Miller’s short season leads to questions about whether he will return in 2014. He took a pay cut to stay this year, and the coaches love all of the things he can do — he is easily the most complete tight end on the team and one of the best all-around tight ends in the league.

Under his revised deal, he will be paid $3 million next year and count $4 million. If the Hawks like the development of Willson and Helfet — and perhaps draft a tight end — it’s easy to see Miller heading out.

But it also is hard to see the Hawks going with Willson as the starter. He caught the winning touchdown pass against Carolina, but he also couldn’t hold on to another pass at the goal line in that game, and he was called for holding and dropped two or three passes against Oakland. Basically, he has not shown he can be a No. 1 tight end.

Even before Miller’s injury, the Hawks were going to have to look for a guy in the draft next year anyway.  It is not considered a great draft for tight ends, but if the Hawks are looking for combination (blocking/receiving) guys like Miller, Notre Dame’s Ben Koyack, Ohio State’s Jeff Heuerman and Florida State’s Nick O’Leary appear to be options in the third round or so.

In the meantime, they will finish the rest of this season without Miller, continuing to play their young tight ends and hoping to get something out of a highly skilled player who this week figures to face his original team in his first game in two years.

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