One of the franchise-grade questions facing the Bears this offseason is the contract fate of Alshon Jeffery. It was a situation they addressed last offseason at some considerable cost in the form of their franchise tag ($14.9 million guaranteed), delaying for one prove-it season a decision on a 6-foot-3 wide receiver who averages just under 5 catches per game over his career.
But suppose, just suppose, the Bears had the option available of another 6-foot-3 receiver, one who also averages just under 5 catches per game this season, an admittedly smaller sample size, but has established in that shorter time frame that he can play all of the three wideout spots?
How would that affect their view of the perceived Jeffery Imperative, that they cannot afford to be without Jeffery going into their future? Check that: How WILL that affect their Jeffery view, because the season-ending leg injury to Kevin White (his own separate question) revealed that they have that designer wide receiver in Cameron Meredith — 6-foot-3, with 62 catches in 13 games (11 starts).
To use Jeffery and Meredith in the same sentence may have been laughable this time a year ago when Meredith played in just 11 games as a reserve. It shouldn’t be laughable now.
Meredith in fact gives the Bears at minimum a fallback as they contemplate the wide-receiver position in the coming months. To project him as a Week 1 starter in 2017, opposite White (the Bears hope) may be a stretch, but not nearly as much as it would have been a year ago, and arguably less of a wild idea than Matt-Barkley-as-starting-quarterback was (Meredith’s production has accelerated over the last three games, with 6, 9 and 9 catches).
And the Bears admittedly didn’t fully know they had what they had in an undrafted free agent who was a quarterback until his junior year at Illinois State.
“No, sir,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “It goes back to training camp when I think about Cam. You see the mistakes that young players make and you don’t know. They teeter, they flash. Cam showed enough last year, you’re intrigued by it.
“But is he going to take the next step, is he going to turn the corner, is he going to become a consistent player and not a flash in the pan and that to me, that’s where Cam has made the biggest jump is he’s become very consistent. He’s become reliable and the quarterbacks trust him.”
[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
Meredith has far exceeded others’ expectations of him — that’s how players become undrafted free agents, because of minimal expectations — but not his own.
“I wanted to become a starter in the league; I got an opportunity to do that so I can check that off the list,” Meredith said. “A thousand yards, getting close there (827). There are little step-by-steps to take to being a great player in this league. I’m just trying to take one week at a time.”
For comparison purposes, Jeffery caught 24 passes his first year as a starter, in 10 starts.
What adds to the intrigue with Meredith is that he is operating from an experience base far, far less than Jeffery, who missed four games with two different injuries his rookie season, seven games with a litany of injuries last season and four games to a PED suspension this year.
Meredith stepped into White’s vacant starting spot and delivered 20 catches in his first two starts. More correctly, he stepped up, not just into the job.
“Kevin was leading our team in receptions when he got hurt,” Loggains said. “You gotta give a lot of credit to Cam that he stepped up, made himself very valuable, a really important part of the offense.
“Where Cam really separated himself from the rest of the group was the ability to play all three spots. So we can move him around when guys do get banged up. Or we’ve been down in a couple of these games. All of a sudden you’re throwing the ball more and the receiver rotation starts to change. Cam gives you the flexibility: [Josh Bellamy] needs a break, [Deonte Thompson] needs a break, [Jeffery] needs a break? [Meredith] can step in at ‘X’ [split end], ‘Z’ [flanker, slightly off the line] and ‘F’ [slot or No. 3] and play, and that’s critical.”
That’s also called “leverage.”