The path to stardom for an undrafted player in the NFL is one full of twists. There’s an immediate advantage and trust lost from not being a highly drafted prospect that you have to make up for with every rare opportunity that slides along.
Easier said than done.
No one understands this NFL journey better than a man molded in that fashion, Bears receiver, Cameron Meredith.
“There are little step-by-steps to take to being a great player in this league,” said Meredith to gathered reporters following a nine reception, 125 yard, one touchdown performance this past Christmas Eve. The Bears were thrown around by the Redskins in a 41-21 loss then, but it doesn’t take away from the young receiver flashing in the rough.
Amongst these flashes from the 24-year-old playmaker, it’s evident that Meredith’s hard work is finally being rewarded in a rise from Illinois State former backup quarterback, to the top of Chicago’s receiving depth chart. Those steps he speaks of are being taken and he’s receiving a tremendous chance.
But how good can he be? Let’s take a look at the timeline and historical facts up to the present.
In 2015, Meredith first really came on the scene in an 18-17 comeback win over the Chiefs on the road as an injury replacement. And what was the most popular question in regards to the receiver making plays (four receptions for 52 yards) in said victory?
In 2017, with a Bears team depleted in dynamic weapons for the time being and Meredith ready to make a leap, he’s no longer an afterthought.
From 120 total receiving yards, to leading the team (888 receiving yards, 66 receptions) in the most relevant statistical categories for a wide receiver.
From a healthy scratch, to making plays like this at intermittent but relatively consistent, streaky points.
A small sample size of the precision and route-running Meredith offers as his primary attribute. Not by coincidence to the ankle-breaking double move above, Pro Football Focus named the Bears receiver as the best double move runner in the NFL in 2016. Quite the praise among versatile weapons across the league.
And, newsflash, he also had the Bears’ highest passer rating at 118.8 in 2016 because of this one pass.
WR Cameron Meredith throws a TD pass to QB Matt Barkley! https://t.co/VZ5FFJfQXp— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) January 1, 2017
Can you say franchise quarterback waiting in the wings?
It’s funny how quickly things have changed at Halas Hall.
Now, as the team sits here with questions concerning Kevin White’s viability, the usefulness of Markus Wheaton and Kendall Wright on short-term contracts, and of course, the departure of former star receiver Alshon Jeffery to the Eagles - it’s the Berwyn native’s complete show in the Bears offense until further notice.
If you’ve heard the Bears gush about Meredith, they’ll enthusiastically tell you the same.
"I'm excited about Cam. I just see him getting better and better. Cam's a guy with a lot of upside,” glowed general manager Ryan Pace last week at the NFL owner’s meetings when talking about Meredith.
The message sticks: This is a guy to be confident in. This is a sleeper not under the microscope at the moment, that’s ready to step into the spotlight.
And depending on whom else you speak to, Meredith is the guy that has the number one role in Chicago’s offense now and is really what the pre-destined, somehow still-hanging-around White, should’ve been. Harsh assessment, but likely true.
The highly drafted first round pick in White fading into the distance while the fringe roster player in Meredith makes a name for himself. The script and underlying cliches of “grit” almost writes itself.
If you dig deeper, Meredith only received both of his chances in the past two years because of injuries to Jeffery and White, as well. An extremely less famous but applicable modern “Wally Pipp” situation. Not a knock on anyone, just an observation.
Football is such a cold and calculated game for some, isn’t it?
Nevertheless, both will be counted on moving forward in unison and it’s Meredith that will lead the charge as the pressure sets in. The tools are all there, so it’s not like there’s much to be concerned about, however.
Incredibly polished route runner, with a necessary intelligence to adjust to coverages on the fly? Check.
Savvy speed and quality after-the-catch ability? Check.
Solid hands (only two drops in 2016) and an ability to make the tough catch over the middle? Check.
Oh, what tough catches or speed, you may ask?
Well, let’s head back to that solemn game against Washington.
No alligator arms or lack of breakaway speed there. Even an untrained eye could see the burst. You know new quarterback Mike Glennon is quite happy he has some measure of a dynamic security blanket.
Meredith crosses everything off the board and it’s just about coming into his own as a mature player at this rate. As a seasoned veteran he’s all but expected to become. That’s the rub. The expectations are higher for him because of roster turnover and because of the leap in performance he made from year one to two and a new leadership role. Baby steps might be wise.
On a greater scale, there’s a standard for undrafted receivers all time and it’s famed former Dallas Cowboy, Drew Pearson, and ex-Patriot, Wes Welker. Can Meredith reach their level? At this juncture, that comparison is a bit premature and hyperbolic.
Would it be impossible to dismiss, though? Without a doubt.
The production will be there regardless from Meredith, it’s just a matter of how much of it comes and goes.
A better question in regards to new heights for Meredith is whether he can crack the top 20 of current NFL receivers. If you’re greedy, perhaps he might even slot into the top 15?
Since we can quantify this proposal easily on some level, the top 15 wide-outs in receiving yards in 2016 goes as follows: T.Y. Hilton, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, Brandin Cooks, Amari Cooper, Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry, Doug Baldwin, Julian Edelman, Demaryius Thomas, Golden Tate, and Tyrell Williams.
Rough numbers work has an average 141 targets there. So, while football isn’t played in a vacuum, with an assumed higher volume of targets (just 52nd overall last year with 96), and reasonable growth along with more consistency from Meredith in his third season, it isn’t wholly unreasonable to see him at least push for that group.
To be fair, he can’t have stretches where he completely disappears with a total of three receptions last year in consecutive games against the Packers, Vikings, and Buccaneers. But with time for Meredith, ideally comes more maturity and necessary experience to understand how to quickly get through a slump and or neutralize one altogether.
The talent, work ethic, and confidence is certainly there. The production can naturally come in sequence with it.
In the end, when Meredith talks about taking those steps to becoming great he glossed about close to the end of only his second professional season, you can see the ceiling continually rising. He’s arrived one way or another.
The man up top in Pace undoubtedly agrees about where Meredith can go.
"He's getting better. I just love his skill set, love his professionalism and I think we're going to see him ascend."
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.