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Number Plunge: Pearls of Hope in Cameron Meredith’s 2016 Season

In this ongoing series, I delve into the dark depths of football statistics searching for portents of hope or concern for the upcoming Bears season.

San Francisco 49ers v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

People will tell you that numbers don’t lie. They will usually go on to present a selection of numbers that support their opinion and omit several numbers that don’t. In this series, I will make an effort to be objective in the numbers I look into and report, but I should warn you that I am an unapologetically optimistic Bears fan. Especially in the off-season, my bias will be toward finding reasons for hope and excitement for the future of our beloved franchise. Looking at Cameron Meredith’s 2016 game-by-game statistics, I have come to believe this young receiver is one of the better reasons to be excited about the Bears in 2017 and beyond.

As an undrafted free agent with minimal playing time in 2015, few fans were aware of Meredith before he became the Bears leading receiver in 2016. Some writers, including our own Robert Zeglinski, saw Meredith’s ascension as one of the few glimmers of hope in an otherwise disappointing season. Other Bears fans saw Meredith leading our receivers as a reflection of how depleted our receiving corps had become. And to non-bears fans, Meredith remains mostly unknown except among fantasy players who remember him as some waiver-wire scrub that cost them a game when their opponent picked him up in week 6.

Like it or not, as we enter the 2017 season, Mere Bear (nickname pending) is poised to be our number one receiver again. So let’s look at his 2016 season a little closer and see if there are reasons to be excited about that.

Mere-Bear’s 2016 game-by-game Stats

The Pearls

The first thing you’ll notice—since I made it glaringly obvious—is that Meredith exceeded Jeffery in almost every important stat: receptions, yards, reception percentage, yards per target, and touchdowns. The other stat comparison that may surprise you, since Jeffery had a four game suspension, is that Mere Bear did this with only 11 more snaps than Jeffery (a 1.3% increase). The obvious defense of Jeffery is that opposing teams were planning for him as a number one receiver and he was earning his production against better coverage—I will go more into that later.

I included the reception percentage and yards per target columns because I believe they are the more useful metrics to project a player’s potential in an increased role. Although Meredith’s snaps and targets were team-leading, they were below the numbers provided to most leading receivers across the league. Meredith’s reception percentage of 68% is well above league average, and better than other leading receivers in our division (including Jordy Nelson and Golden Tate). His yards per target is even more impressive, also besting the previously-mentioned NFC-Northers as well as Stefon Diggs.

To provide comparisons for his season as a whole, I decided to compare Meredith’s 2016 to recent top rookie seasons. This feels appropriate to me because I am trying to assess potential in someone who had limited experience prior to this year, and was eased in throughout the season, as is often the case with rookies. Meredith was a college QB before changing to receiver, so he actually has less receiving experience than most rookie WRs, who can be slow to adapt to an NFL route tree. With his limited prior snaps, he also had the same advantage most rookies have, which is that opposing teams were unfamiliar with him and less likely to consider him a threat. In case I was being biased, I made a pro/con list to see if this comparison was fair.

With four pros and only one con, it’s obvious that this is a fair comparison to make! Without further ado:

A quick overview will show that Meredith compares well with other top rookie seasons over the past three years in nearly every category except touchdowns. His low touchdowns can in part be excused by the Bears’ limited time in the red zone, but this is certainly one area I’d like to see improvement. While several rookies did post more yards in their first season, all of those rookies had more snaps and more targets than Meredith. On a per target basis, we only see Michael Thomas earning more yards. In the interest of remaining excited about Mere Bear, OBJ’s ridiculous rookie stats have been hidden from view. We’re not asking Cameron to be a generational talent, just a passable number one. Overall, when compared to top rookie seasons, Meredith’s stats are impressive considering he was catching balls from the three-headed CutBarkHoyersaurus behind center.

It’s important to note that Meredith did not play a snap in either of the first two games, effectively only having 14 games to earn his team-leading stat line. If you project his averages over those 14 games to a 16 game season, he would reach 75 receptions and over 1,000 yards (full projected stat lines can be found below).

Looking closer at Meredith’s game-by-game stats, you notice he received only 2 targets in each game of a three game stretch (games 7 through 9 against Green Bay, Minnesota, and Tampa). I watched every snap of the Green Bay game to see if these low targets were due to a drop in Meredith’s play and an inability for him to get open. By my counting, he was open on 66% of the routes he ran, which is not particularly impressive but still respectable. He was also limited in the number of routes he ran by being used as a blocker on some passing plays. I decided these two target games didn’t reflect how he would be utilized in the 2017 season, so I thought it would be worth looking at his season without those games, and then projecting those averages to a 16 game season. Doing so would produce a 92 reception 1167 yard season.

At this point, I couldn’t help being curious about the disappointing stat line he earned against the Titans in week 12. Re-watching the game, I saw several uncatchable throws, as well as one that was intercepted well before reaching Meredith. I also saw a couple of wide-open drops, and additional drops upon contact. It was not a great day for Meredith, but he was not solely responsible for his 2 for 9 stat line either. Considering it’s a game I prefer to forget, I couldn’t help taking a look at his season stats without it, and what a whole season might look like if he never had a game like that fateful November Sunday. Excluding the Titans game, and looking at the remaining 10 games where he had at least 3 snaps, Meredith’s reception percentage jumps to an impressive 74% and his yards/target jumps to over 9.5. Projecting those games over a 16 game season would lead to a 98 reception 1253 yard impress-a-thon.

Since I was already getting carried away, I couldn’t help noticing that in games 3 and 4, he had very limited snaps. Surely those games don’t represent what we can expect from Mere Bear in 2017. After excluding those as well, we see an eight game sample with 9.88 yards per target which projects over a 16 game season to 110 receptions for 1462 yards. It would be irresponsible to say that last stat line is what we can expect for Meredith’s 2017 season, but it is pleasing to know that he played eight games at a Pro Bowl level in 2016.

The Clam

Not every shell you find diving has a pearl inside. Despite my optimistic bias, I couldn’t help notice one discouraging stretch of games. During the four games when Alshon Jeffery was suspended, Meredith became the unquestioned number one receiver, and his performance dropped during that period. Surprisingly, his targets did not increase—averaging just over 6 per game—but his efficiency did take a significant drop with only 60% reception rate and only 8.28 yards per target. While I believe the Bears’ other 2017 receivers will draw more attention than the supporting cast of Joshua Bellamy and Deonte Thompson that Meredith was running with through this stretch, it does give pause to the hope that Meredith’s 2017 production can maintain the same efficiency he showed through his best stretches of 2016.

But let’s not resign ourselves to a perpetuity of 3-and-13 despair just yet. Mere Bear did show tremendous efficiency on three of those four Jeffery-less games. The fourth game is the Titan’s embarrassment we have already established I would rather forget. In the interest in doing what I want, I have separated out those three game for you, and also projected them over a 16 game season. Although the targets over those games were low, his delightful 81% reception rate and Julio-Jones-impersonating 11.75 yards per target revived my hope that Mere Bear can succeed as a true number one receiver.

Final Thoughts

A slew of factors will be different as we enter the 2016 season, from the quarterback and the other receivers, to the way Meredith is treated by opposing defenses. The projections I make from his 2016 stats may be little more than an indulgent thought experiment. However, after partaking in this indulgence, I feel confident that Mere Bear can be an above average number one receiver.

Back in April, Robert asked what Cameron Meredith’s ceiling might be. I can’t say what Meredith’s ceiling might be. That is, I can’t say it any better than 2 Chainz has already said it in his classic hit “I’m Different.”

“Pull up to the scene with my ceiling missing. Middle finger up to my competition.”