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Drew Brees Makes His Receivers Better

A comparison of production from former Saints wide receivers shows that new addition, Cameron Meredith, stands to benefit immensely.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints made a smooth move this week by acquiring 25-year-old wide receiver Cameron Meredith for a reasonable $5 million per year over two years. The Saints didn’t have to provide any draft compensation to the Chicago Bears in return since Meredith was tendered as an undrafted free agent.

Though Meredith is coming of an ACL tear from last preseason, the Saints knew the young receiver had too much upside to pass up. As luck would have it, the Bears had recently invested in their wide receiver and tight end corps, which left Meredith ripe for the picking. The Bears’ expendable trash could easily become the Saints’ unexpected treasure.

Just two seasons ago, in 2016, under the tutelage of now Saints receivers coach Curtis Johnson, Meredith compiled 66 receptions for 888 yards and 4 TDs. Johnson’s familiarity with Meredith, no doubt, played a part in the Saints signing him.

If Meredith was able to produce that stat line with a hodgepodge of quarterbacks including Matt Barkley, Brian Hoyer, Jay Cutler, and David Fales, just think, what could he accomplish with Drew Brees under center? I mean, Meredith even passed for more touchdowns (a two yard TD) than Fales that season. Sad.

Since 2006, one trend has been abundantly clear, Drew Brees squeezes superior performances out of his wide receiver corps, no matter their depth or talent level. His accuracy and ability to look off defenders while getting his receivers open in space are among the NFL super elite.

Receivers have come and gone from the Saints roster over the years, but they rarely, if ever, replicate their production as when Brees was slinging them the pigskin. Between 2009 and 2011, Robert Meachem averaged 43 receptions and 660 yards while racking up 20 TDs.

In 2012, Meachem signed a four-year, $25.9 million ($14 million guaranteed) deal with the San Diego Chargers with the expectation of becoming their number one receiver after Vincent Jackson left for the Tampa Bay Bucs in free agency. In his lone season with the Chargers, Meachem caught 14 of 32 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns.

Over the final eight games, his role diminished as he played 50 offensive snaps and caught two of three passes for a measly 18 yards. Over the final six games, he wasn’t targeted once. Then after failing to build a rapport with quarterback Charlie Whitehurst the following preseason, the Chargers simply cut Meachem and paid him to play for his former team, the Saints.

Between 2006 and 2013, Lance Moore averaged 43 receptions and 535 yards while snagging 38 TDs. In two seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions, he averaged 21.5 receptions, 267.5 yards, and 3 TDs. He retired following his second season away from Brees.

Between 2013 and 2014, Kenny Stills averaged 47.5 receptions and 786 yards while reeling in eight TDs. His NOLA catch percentages of 64% and 75.9% far eclipsed his catch percentages for the Miami Dolphins (42.9%, 51.9%, 55.2%) after he was traded for Danelle Ellerbe and a draft pick.

Over the past three seasons with the Dolphins, Stills has averaged 42.3 receptions and 671 yards. Stills has increased his red zone threat ability, however, by catching 18 TDs during that period. I still don’t understand why the Saints traded him, but because Brees is so good, other players like Willie Snead and Ted Ginn Jr. were able to somewhat fill Still’s dynamic role.

Drafting speedster Brandin Cooks in 2014 made the Stills trade possible as they both served as field stretchers. But Stills was cheap as a fifth round pick and Cooks was expensive as the Saints traded up for him the first round. Cooks, too, was eventually traded to the Patriots and, later, to the Los Angeles Rams.

Between 2014 and 2016, Cooks averaged 72 receptions and 954 yards on his way to 20 TDs. Last year Cooks caught passes from one of the only quarterbacks in Brees’ realm, Tom Brady. And yet, Cooks caught fewer receptions (65), for fewer yards (1,082), and fewer TDs (7), than he had in his last two seasons with Brees (84/78 receptions, 1,138/1,173 yards, 9/8 TDs).

For all his sour grapes about not getting the ball enough, Cooks didn’t even see an uptick in usage or targets, even while swapping out future first ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

We can even go back to Joe Horn’s lone 2006 season with Brees before he signed for one final year with the division rival Atlanta Falcons. With Brees, an aging Horn gathered 37 receptions, 679 yards, and 4 TDs.

Because Michael Vick was sentenced to prison for organizing and operating an illegal dog fighting ring, Horn had to unexpectedly catch passes from journeyman, Joey Harrington. The result was 27 receptions, 243 yards, and a single TD. Horn retired following that season with the Dirty Birds.

Even players like Joe Morgan, who never caught on with another team, were able to eek out reasonable production during Brees’ tenure. It appears that Kenny Stills is the only outlier who has maintained a similar rate of production away from Brees’ laser sharp accuracy and pocket awareness that allows him to find his receivers downfield.

Though Cooks’ production is also similar, I can not compare it to Stills’ production post Brees. Cooks went from one Hall of Fame quarterback to another while Stills has remained steady despite catching passes from less talented slingers like Ryan Tannehill, Matt Moore, and Jay Cutler.

Cameron Meredith is stoked to play with a quarterback of Brees’ caliber.

He should be. Brees makes good receivers great, and assuming Meredith is healthy for the start of the season, I fully expect him to end the season with something like 50 receptions, 750 yards, and 6 TDs. For more than $2 Million less than Coby Fleener per year, this signing could end up being extremely valuable.