The New Orleans Saints had issues on offense last season. Improving has been a top priority this offseason.
It might come across like fearmongering to talk about a group that finished second in total yards and fourth in points. But the level of concern for the Saints offense was at least in the yellow range, if not pushing over into orange.
That's why the acquisition of receiver Cameron Meredith is so significant.
The Saints have pried Meredith away from the Chicago Bears, who did not match the two-year, $9.6 million offer sheet New Orleans offered Meredith last week, a league source told The Advocate. The move gives the Saints the kind of slot receiver they missed all too often last season, even as they came within one play of the NFC Championship Game.
New Orleans converted 37.6 percent of its third downs. The number was easily the worst mark of the Sean Payton era, and it marked the first time since 2006 that the offense didn’t generate at least 1,000 yards from the slot. The Saints finished with 977, and they only achieved that mark because Michael Thomas picked up 421 yards from the inside.
One of the more critical spots in Payton’s offenses over the years lacked a viable candidate unless the best outside receiver moved inside. Taking Thomas out of the equation, Brees connected on 31 passes to the slot on third down last season (Thomas had 20 receptions). The quarterback hit on 50 in 2016, when the third-down rate was at a league-best 48.6 percent (Thomas had seven).
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That’s why Payton called wide receiver a “must” position while speaking at the NFL annual meetings last month, and it’s why the team made an aggressive move to sign Meredith. The talented and athletic receiver provides an immediate upgrade at a position left barren after the unexpected regression of Willie Snead.
When watching Meredith play, it’s easy to see to the appeal and why New Orleans targeted him. He’s a 6-foot-3 player who moves well and has enough speed to pull away from players like Detroit cornerback Darius Slay, one of the faster cornerbacks in the NFL.
In 2016, Meredith played from the slot and on the outside before suffering a knee injury that kept him sidelined last year. That versatility will serve him well, because New Orleans has been incorporating more heavy formations with just two receivers on the field.
Meredith is a converted quarterback and probably has some tactical things on which he can improve. But he often beats cornerbacks with double moves and understands how to use subtle body movements to create separation.
One of his finer moments in 2016 was when he used a stutter-step to beat Patrick Robinson, who was playing for the Colts at the time, for a touchdown. Meredith finished that season with 888 yards and four touchdowns on 66 catches over 14 games.
Meredith is comfortable going over the middle and can make catches in traffic. However, a review of all of his targets from 2016 showed that he dropped at least seven passes. Some of those were the result of poor ball placement, and an accurate quarterback like Drew Brees will help him in that area. It’s probably not a coincidence that Ted Ginn Jr., who arrived in New Orleans with a reputation of having bad hands, only dropped two passes last season.
And you can live with some drops over the middle. It’s the nature of the position. Even Marques Colston dropped an average of 6.9 passes during his time with the Saints, according to Pro Football Focus. As long as it is not a consistent issue, and it shouldn’t be, Meredith should be fine.
The other concern with Meredith is the health of his knee. The Saints, who hired a new medical staff last season, felt good enough about it to sign him to an offer sheet after having him in for a visit. The Colts and Ravens were also reportedly interested in the receiver, and he fielded multiple offers, which means at least one other team felt comfortable with his health. The Bears reportedly let him go due in part to concerns about his knee. Meredith will obviously need to prove the Saints right.
Assuming Meredith is ready to go, he will not only help the Saints on the field; his presence frees up the team entering the draft.
Along with wide receiver, Payton called tight end and pass rusher “musts.” New Orleans recently signed tight end Ben Watson, which checked one of those boxes. Meredith takes care of another.
The Saints have taken a measured approach this offseason, pulling out of negotiations when they felt the price of a player had gone too high. They sat patiently and were able to acquire Meredith, who has an obvious fit in Payton's offense and possesses the talent to be a legitimate weapon for Brees.
It looks like the Saints have made improvements.