Saints take risk on high-upside Cameron Meredith after Bears pass

Cameron Meredith, who missed all of 2017 due to injury, has the talent and versatility to click in the Saints' offense. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The analysis on the New Orleans Saints' signing of receiver Cameron Meredith is pretty easy: If he comes back healthy from a major knee injury, the Saints might have landed one of the best bargains in all of free agency at around two years and $10 million.

Coach Sean Payton labeled the receiver position as a “must” for this offseason. Saints receivers coach Curtis Johnson loved Meredith when they were together with the Chicago Bears during Meredith’s 2016 breakout season. And the 6-foot-3, 207-pounder has flashed the potential to be a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver in the NFL, with the versatility to line up in the slot and outside -- exactly the type of player the Saints needed after their offense struggled so much on third downs last season.

“The Saints are one of the teams I think will be a really good fit for him because they move their personnel around so much,” said ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, who is based in Chicago and sees some comparisons to former Saints standout Marques Colston. “If healthy, the arrow will be pointing up on Meredith in the Saints’ offense with Drew Brees and Payton’s ability to create matchups.”

That’s obviously a huge “if,” though, considering the Bears weren’t willing to make the same kind of investment in their homegrown talent, whom they found and developed as an undrafted rookie out of Illinois State in 2015.

And that “if” is obviously the only reason the Saints ever got the chance to sign the promising young receiver in the first place.

The Bears had ample salary-cap space and ample need at the receiver position, where they invested heavily in free-agent newcomer Allen Robinson (who is recovering from his own torn ACL) and Taylor Gabriel. But they weren’t even willing to offer Meredith a one-year, $2.9 million restricted free agent tender that would have virtually kept him off the open market. And they decided Wednesday not to match the Saints’ offer.

Obviously the Bears could be wrong. Meredith told ESPN 1000’s Waddle and Silvy on Wednesday that his recovery is on schedule and he plans to return at 100 percent. And both the Saints and Baltimore Ravens felt comfortable enough to offer contracts to Meredith this spring after doing their own medical reviews on him.

This deal is reminiscent of the one New Orleans signed last month with defensive end Alex Okafor, who is coming back from a torn Achilles. If those two guys pan out, the Saints' offseason will be considered a huge success.

The NFL Network reported that Meredith’s contract includes $5.4 million in guarantees, though the final structure of the deal hasn’t been posted yet. That would hurt the Saints’ pocketbook if Meredith is never able to become a steady contributor. But it’s clear why the Saints were willing to gamble a little bit, considering Meredith’s potential.

He had 66 catches for 888 yards and four touchdowns in 2016 in just 14 games after starting the year as a healthy inactive (though he did battle some dropped passes). And as Bowen pointed out, Meredith did that while playing with quarterbacks such as Matt Barkley, Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler.

“You understand he wasn’t playing with Drew Brees,” Bowen said.

Here are three more thoughts on the Saints’ newest addition:

Fills big need: It was hard to notice if you didn’t look closely last season, but the Saints were awfully thin when it came to reliable pass-catchers behind Pro Bowl receiver Michael Thomas and veteran speedster Ted Ginn Jr. Although the Saints finished second in the NFL in total offense and fifth in passing offense, they finished a stunning 19th in third-down conversion rate (37.6 percent).

Perhaps Willie Snead can re-emerge as a productive receiver for the Saints on third downs after his disappointing 2017 campaign. But now the Saints have another high-upside option, which diversifies their portfolio a bit. And now they might not feel like they “must” reach for a receiver early in the NFL draft.

How he fits: Meredith played almost exactly 50 percent of his snaps from the slot in Chicago, which is where New Orleans has its biggest need. But as Bowen pointed out, Meredith’s versatility as an inside/outside guy might be what attracted the Saints the most, since Payton likes to move his pass-catchers around so much.

“He’s not a true go-up-and-get-it type of guy like wide receivers who make a bunch of plays on 50-50 throws consistently down the field. But he’s a really good route runner considering how long and linear he is,” said Bowen, who called Meredith more “smooth” than some receivers his size who are more stiff. “And they did a lot of things with him in Chicago in terms of middle-of-the-field throws. Short to intermediate throws, whether that’s under routes, shallow crossers, slants, smash routes, dig routes that break back inside the numbers.”

Bowen said Meredith probably plays around a “4.5 speed.”

“That’s plenty fast enough to get down the field, and he can create separation,” Bowen said. “He’s not dynamic after the catch. But what’s surprising to me is how often he slips tackles after the catch; he’s got pretty good body control. And I do think he’s tough -- he’ll lay out across the middle of the field.”

Former college QB: Meredith is one of those great underdog stories; he actually spent his first two years in college as a quarterback before converting to wide receiver and breaking out as a senior. Johnson was apparently one of Meredith’s biggest supporters when he made the roster as a still-unpolished rookie in the summer of 2016. And his breakthrough opportunity came a year later.

As ESPN Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson wrote, Meredith was believed to be a great guy, a great teammate and was “hands down the Bears’ best WR every day last summer before he got hurt.” So he said it would be hard to pinpoint any other reason why the Bears would let Meredith go outside of their medical concerns.