New Saints WR Cameron Meredith 'way ahead of schedule'

METAIRIE, La. -- During the first spring practice open to the media Thursday, the first pass thrown by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees was caught by none other than Cameron Meredith.

The play itself was nothing special. It was just a passing drill with the receivers running routes against air and no defenders on the field. Meredith isn't participating in full-team drills yet.

But it was still a ground-breaking moment for a receiver who just returned to practice this week for the first time since he tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee last August with the Chicago Bears.

"It feels great, man. I mean, especially to be catching it from a Hall of Fame quarterback like Drew Brees," said Meredith, who signed a two-year, $9.5 million contract with the Saints as a restricted free agent after the Bears declined to match their offer because of concerns about the knee injury.

"I'm glad they believed in me and they saw what I could do, especially coming off an injury like mine. And I'm excited to go out there and do what I can for the team," said the 25-year-old Meredith, who broke out in his second year as an undrafted free agent with the Bears in 2016, catching 66 passes for 888 yards and four touchdowns.

The enthusiasm was shared by Saints coach Sean Payton, who said he turned to Saints trainer Beau Lowery during the first walk-through session of OTAs on Tuesday and commented that Meredith is "way ahead of schedule."

"Certainly where our doctors had hoped, and even better," Payton said. "He's gonna factor in this year. He's a player that we've got a real clear vision for."

It's not hard to see that vision. When healthy, Meredith was a smooth-looking, 6-foot-3, 207-pound receiver for the Bears who spent about 50 percent of his time in the slot and 50 percent on the outside.

He looked like Chicago's clear No. 1 receiver before the injury last summer. And if healthy again, he could easily emerge as a No. 2 or No. 3 in New Orleans' offense, which could use another slot receiver and another big target after some uncharacteristic struggles on third downs last season.

But no one doubts Meredith's potential. It's the health that obviously remains a major question mark after a Bears team that valued him so much decided it was too risky to keep him.

Obviously the Saints are more optimistic -- as were the Baltimore Ravens, who also made Meredith an offer in the spring.

When asked if Chicago's medical evaluation concerned him, Meredith said, "I wouldn't say I was concerned. I know what my body can do. I'm a fast healer. And I believe that if I put the work in, then at the end of the day it'll come back around, just like it's supposed to. And if it doesn't, then I wasn't meant to be here in the first place. So I just take it day by day and follow what the trainers say and push myself, and progress will come out of that.

"It was a major injury. I'm not gonna downplay it. But at the same time, to be where I'm at coming off of that says a lot about my doctor and my surgeon and myself as a player. So I'm excited to go out there and not [only] prove people wrong, but at the same time prove myself."

Meredith has not expressed any ill will toward the Bears, saying he understands that they made a business decision. But for a guy who has made a living out of exceeding expectations, the former Illinois State receiver said he absolutely relishes the opportunity to do it again.

"Oh yeah. Most definitely," Meredith said. "I look forward to going out there and doing what I do so that people might be surprised or taken back by what comes with the injury and then coming back off of it -- especially at my position.

"You know, there's many examples before me, Jordy Nelson and [others]. Coming back from an injury, it's gonna be tough, it's a challenge. And that challenge builds you up as a player, so I'm excited."

Meredith said the mental challenge has been the hardest part of his recovery -- dealing with his limitations at first, then battling between staying patient and wanting to push himself. He said this was the first major injury of his life.

But these past few weeks have been especially rewarding, since he has been able to ramp up his activity.

"When I got here, we started doing stuff more aggressively and putting my knee kind of to the test. And we started feeling good more and more every day," Meredith said. "So I'm excited to see how fast I can get back, but at the same time, take my time."

Brees is just getting his first glimpses of Meredith on the field. So he didn't have a full scouting report.

"But I like talking to him, I like his attitude, I like what I've seen from his prior film," Brees said. "I like his size, his strength. I think he fits the system well, and I think we'll be able to do a lot of things with him. So now it's just a matter of us getting that time on task together and building that chemistry."