Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
Let's take a look at a few snapshots to sum up Robert Meachem's career.
Start with this one from 2007, when the rookie first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints was visibly limping on the practice field. On game days, he was sitting out entirely.
Next, take a glance at this one from 2008. The limp was gone and Meachem was able to make an impact. But it was minimal. In a season when top receiver Marques Colston was hurt much of the time, quarterback Drew Brees was tossing footballs all over the field for anyone to catch. Meachem responded with 12 receptions. He once forced coach Sean Payton to call a timeout out when he broke to the wrong side of the field coming out of the huddle. When reporters checked in to ask about his progress, Meachem barely could look them in the eye. His answers were brief, usually not even good enough to use as quotes.
Now, take a look at this last picture. It comes from a morning in early August. Meachem had just finished a practice where he caught a bunch of passes from Brees and even drew some words of encouragement from the quarterback. Meachem was sitting on a bench. He was smiling and talking extensively -- so extensively that a second glance at the jersey number was required to make sure this guy really was Meachem.
"They're going to see the first-round draft pick this season," Meachem said.
Meachem's words were so emphatic that you almost have to believe he's a different player than in his first two seasons. Listen to his teammates and coaches a bit and you'll understand why we made him the NFC South's representative in our Emerging Stars series.
"I can see Robert becoming more confident in his own abilities and his knowledge of the offense and realizing you've got to give a little bit extra to really succeed," Brees said. "I'm really impressed with his progression. He's got an opportunity to be a big part of this offense and I'm excited about that."
The Saints and their fans have been excited about Meachem ever since he was drafted out of Tennessee. He's 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds and, on paper, has the perfect combination of size and speed to be an all-purpose receiver. That's why fans have been so disappointed with Meachem's first two seasons.
So why should the third year be any different? Because Meachem really is a different guy this year.
"My confidence is sky high," Meachem said. "I'm back to being the old me. I've got my explosion back. I'm back to being the player I was in college."
Maybe more than that. At Tennessee in 2006, Meachem had a breakout season as a junior. He set a Tennessee record with 1,265 receiving yards, had six 100-yard games and scored 11 touchdowns. That was enough to make the Saints take him as the 27th overall pick and people viewed him as an instant replacement for Joe Horn.
He wasn't even close to that. Coming off knee surgery, Meachem's limp was obvious in practice, he didn't know the playbook and he didn't have the trust of Brees or the coaching staff.
The limp was gone last season, but not much else changed.
"My rookie year, that was crazy," Meachem said. "It was real tough because I was a first-round draft pick and you want to make all the plays and you want to be on the field all the time. I couldn't even get on the field. Last year, I wasn't nearly as comfortable as I am now. Last year, they got me involved, but it wasn't like I wanted it to be."
Meachem said there are a couple of reasons why he believes this year will be like he and everyone else wants it to be. The first is physical. His knee is fine and he spent time in the offseason working with a speed coach. He said he's as fast ever.
The next part is the mental side of the game.
"The positive thing about the first two years is that I got a chance to learn about football and about myself," Meachem said. "God teaches you a lot of things. I wasn't ready. I just wasn't ready for all this. You come in as a star, but you've got 100 other stars out there as well. That's when you start to realize you've got to put in the work to set yourself apart."
Watch the Saints in practice and you'll frequently see Brees talking to Meachem between plays.
"I think there was some of that in the past with Robert," Brees said. "But I think his desire to make himself a bigger part of this offense has helped him to grow."
Meachem is heeding the words and wisdom of a man who threw for more than 5,000 yards last season. Colston is healthy again, but there are plenty of passes to go around in the Saints' offense and Meachem is competing with Lance Moore and Devery Henderson for playing time.
"I feel like Drew's got a lot of trust in me and that means a lot," Meachem said. "You've got to love it as a receiver in this offense because we come off the bus throwing the football."
And when the Saints get off the bus this season, there just might be a very big role for Meachem.
"They're going to rely on me," Meachem said. "Drew and I talk a lot and I'm really starting to understand what he sees and what coach Payton sees. The game is fun again. I don't have to think as much. The last two seasons, I was thinking too much. I was trying to do everything right instead of just playing. Now, I"m just going out and playing."