It’s clear that the New Orleans Saints have a vision for their 2018 offseason strategy - that vision just isn’t exactly clear to us. We’ve been given occasional glimpses into their plans, whether it’s FOX Sports insider and Sean Payton confidant Jay Glazer dropping a tweetbomb, or carefully retracing the Saints’ steps day by day.
So far that has been an exercise in patience. The Saints didn’t let many rumors slip out of the building prior to free agency’s kickoff, and the big names they’ve hosted on visits - Ndamukong Suh, Sheldon Richardson - were slow to make decisions before spurning New Orleans’ offers. Since then it’s been a parade of familiar faces - Benjamin Watson, Jermon Bushrod, Patrick Robinson, briefly Jimmy Graham - who the Saints know can help check boxes off their list of priorities. Hardly anything exciting.
So we’re left to over-examine the free agents the Saints have flown into town for visits. That list definitely does not include Eric Decker, but it does feature an intriguing name in Chicago Bears wide receiver Cameron Meredith.
I kind of like Cam Meredith. pic.twitter.com/3JCxcQtHQY— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) December 5, 2016
Meredith was an undrafted rookie out of Illinois State back in 2015 who really broke out the following year. Under then-Bears receivers coach Curtis Johnson (who has since returned to the Saints) Meredith posted a head-turning statline of 66 catches for 888 yards and four scores, playing exceptionally well from the slot and adequately outside the numbers. He’s returning from a nasty 2017 preseason injury that cleanly tore his left ACL and partially damaged the MCL in the same knee, but Meredith hasn’t lacked for suitors: the Saints were his third free agent visit after the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens.
So the Saints have an opportunity to add a wide receiver eerily similar to third-year Pro Bowler Michael Thomas - they’re each 25-years old, tower over defensive backs at 6-foot-3, and outweigh opponents at around 210-pounds. That’s a pair of guys you can play bully ball with, especially given Meredith’s knack for gliding past defenders in the open field and Thomas’s reliable hands. The Saints would get a lot younger at wide receiver with Meredith in the fold, too, and rest easier knowing they wouldn’t have to lean so hard on Ted Ginn Jr in his twilight years.
But here’s the trouble: Meredith is a restricted free agent for the Bears, who tendered him at a level that gives them right of first refusal to any contract offers. That could have just been an insurance policy Bears GM Ryan Pace took out in case they weren’t able to sign Jacksonville Jaguars alpha receiver Allen Robinson, Atlanta Falcons speed demon Taylor Gabriel, or Philadelphia Eagles chess piece Trey Burton. They’ve also got a former first round draft pick in Kevin White coming off the mend, and he’s ripped.
I think it’s more likely Pace is approaching Meredith’s situation the same way he handled Kyle Fuller with the transition tag: these are players he wants to keep, but isn’t sure where their value is. So he’ll let someone else negotiate terms, like the Green Bay Packers did with Fuller, and happily match the offer knowing he’s gotten a good player at their market value.
If the Saints lose Willie Snead through this same restricted free agency process (he also visited with the Ravens recently) and fail to land Meredith, they’ll be in hard straits at wide receiver. The good news is Brandon Coleman looked the part as a solid fourth man last year who offered outstanding blocking and was clutch when his name was called on third down. The bad news is the Saints haven’t brought him back yet, either. Maybe one of the developmental guys - Tommylee Lewis, Austin Carr, or Travin Dural - takes a big step this summer. But it sure looks like the Saints are looking for talent outside their roster at wide receiver.