By Matt Kelley (@Fantasy_Mansion)
Special to Yahoo Sports
Everyone loves a good underdog story, and Cameron Meredith’s journey from Illinois State to the New Orleans Saints hits all the notes.
The Last Laugh
Recruited to Illinois State as a quarterback, the former high school Mr. Illinois candidate played QB in 2011 and 2012 before transitioning to wide receiver. Just one year into the experiment, he posted 66 receptions for 1,061 yards and nine touchdowns in his final year of college eligibility. The NFL beckoned, but without an invitation to the scouting combine, his chances of being selected were slim.
Despite knowing this, Meredith was victimized by a prank caller posing as Bill Belichick preparing to draft him. Though Meredith resented going undrafted that day, he recently had the last laugh, signing a two-year, $9.6 million contract, which includes $5.4 million guaranteed. Poaching the Meredith was a clever boon for New Orleans and a gut-punch for the Chicago Bears.
Meredith signed with the Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and quickly rose up the team’s depth chart in the absence of the oft-injured Kevin White. After finishing the season with 11 receptions for 120 yards, Meredith’s untapped potential was ready to be unleased in 2016.
While Meredith did not blaze at his pro day 40-yard dash, he demonstrated excellent explosiveness, evidenced by a 129.8 (86-percentile) Burst Score, and more importantly, exceptional size-adjusted lateral quickness, posting a 10.83 (89th-percentile) Agility Score at 6-3, 200-pounds. Meredith’s workout metrics signaled to the Bears that he possessed the necessary athleticism to excel when called upon at the NFL level.
How quickly memories of Meredith, fantasy hero, fade. Recall that in 2016, Meredith was Adam Thielen before Adam Thielen – a highly versatile small school athlete rising from obscurity to become a league-winning waiver add. In week 16, Meredith posted a 28.5 PPR fantasy points, top-5 among NFL WRs that week with Matt Barkley at quarterback. How did he do it?
With Alshon Jeffery a game-time decision more often than not and replacement level players such as Josh Bellamy and Deonte Thompson logging heavy snaps in 2016, Meredith quietly assumed the role of alpha dog in Chicago’s passing game. Most impressively, he finished No. 9 among NFL receivers with a +17.9-percent Target Premium, which measured his per-target production against all other Chicago receivers.
The Bears carousel of mediocrity under center, from Jay Cutler to Brian Hoyer to Barkley(!), depended on Meredith’s playmaking ability. In Jeffery’s absence, Meredith became the Bears’ defacto No. 1 receiver. One game he would play slot/Y-receiver, and the next he would play split end/X-receiver. His dependability and route running versatility propelled Meredith’s 19.7-percent Target Share, top-40 among NFL WRs that season.
Meredith was one of only a select few wide receivers in the PlayerProfiler Database with more than 6.0 completed air yards per target and 3.0 yards after the catch per target in his breakout 2016 season. He converted receptions in all quadrants of the field on his way to posting a 9.2 yards per target, top-10 among receivers. He ultimately posted 13.0 PPR fantasy points per game (No. 26 among WRs) that year.
Despite achieving that efficiency with those quarterbacks, the Bears chose to hustle backwards and save $1 million (just under $2 million for an original round tender vs. just under $3 million for a second-round tender) rather than protecting their unlikely breakout receiver. Free of draft pick compensation retaliation, the Saints asked “What would Bill Belichick do?” and offered Meredith a reasonable raise to play in New Orleans.
All-the-while, the Bears were signing Allen Robinson to a well-deserved, lucrative free agent contract. The team then doubled down on free-agent receivers by signing one-dimensional field stretcher Taylor Gabriel to a surprisingly generous $26 million contract, which included a whopping $14 million guaranteed. With multiple WR mega-deals already on the books, Chicago was checkmated and could not retain Meredith, even at a fraction of Gabriel’s contract value.
The Saints finally found a replacement for Marques Colston in Meredith, who looks the part of an ultra-versatile queen chess piece receiver. While Meredith demonstrated that he is capable of playing all wide receiver roles (X, Y, and Z) in Chicago, Meredith looks the part of the pumped up, volume slot receiver that Drew Brees historically feeds. He should fill the shoes of a late-career Colston.
While Meredith’s role is clear, his fantasy outlook is complicated.
The Saints are no longer the Saints. The most under-reported stat from the 2017 season was Drew Brees’ great disappearing pass attempts trick. His attempts collapsed from 673 in 2016 to 536 in 2017, the equivalent of missing four games in previous years. Credit the addition of Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara, two of the best-value selections of the 2017 draft. As the Saints bolstered the running game and defense, the Game Script inevitably skewed positive (+3.61), and Sean Payton called upon Brees less for late-game heroics. When Brees is throwing the football, he was targeting running backs more than any other quarterback by a wide margin, even before Kamara arrived. Just ask Pierre Thomas.
Pre-Alvin Kamara Drew Brees RB Targets
Great New Orleans’ pass volume propelled Lance Moore into fantasy relevance from the slot in the past. While Meredith projects to start opposite Michael Thomas and finish No. 2 in target share among Saints receivers, with so many targets funneled to Thomas and the running backs, there simply will not be enough volume to sustain Meredith as a weekly fantasy option. As long as Thomas and Kamara are healthy, Meredith will be, at best, the third option in the passing game. Even if Meredith matches his 2016 efficiency, he will likely fall outside the top-24 fantasy receivers on a team with an ascending defense and RB-centric offense.
Yet, I want that exact guy in 2018. Just in the last three years, the average PPR fantasy points per game scored WR1-WR24 has dropped precipitously from 18.1 in 2015 to 15.7 in 2016 to 15.0 in 2017. Meredith’s 13.0 PPR fantasy points per game in 2016 is much more impressive in this context. There is great value in drafting an efficient, NFL starter tethered to Brees. Lacking brand equity of higher profile players, his ADP is unlikely to rise higher than the middle rounds. Like Thielen before him, Meredith is the one of the few mid-round picks who possesses the ability and supporting cast to become a top-10 fantasy receiver if in-season circumstances push him up the target totem pole. Meredith is a high-floor, high-ceiling penthouse receiver available at a townhouse price.