Saints need a 'jump' from Cameron Meredith, young receivers

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Saints coach Sean Payton talks to Sal Paolantonio about the NFL competition committee's efforts to expand replay. (1:54)

METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints weren’t ready to give up on Cameron Meredith.

The fifth-year receiver seemed like a candidate to become a salary-cap casualty this offseason, because he never fully recovered last season from a major 2017 knee injury and played in only six games. But the Saints worked out a pay cut with him instead.

More importantly, New Orleans didn’t sign anyone to replace Meredith in the first wave of free agency.

The Saints did consider making at least one big move to fill their need for a reliable slot receiver, which is Meredith’s most likely position in this offense. But coach Sean Payton said the price tag grew too high on free agent Adam Humphries.

“The economics each year. You’re thinking, 'We’re getting ready to do this.’ And then it’s like, ‘Wow,’” Payton said at the league meetings Tuesday. “You know, ‘I wanted to see this movie, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that.’”

Likewise, the Saints didn’t make a play for other top free-agent slot receivers such as Golden Tate, Jamison Crowder, Cole Beasley, Randall Cobb or Danny Amendola.

And for now, anyway, there are no immediate plans to re-sign veteran receiver Dez Bryant after he tore his Achilles just two days after signing with the Saints last November -- though that could always change once he is healthy.

“I just know he's been rehabbing,” Payton said. “I wouldn't be able to forecast the future relative to Dez.”

Instead, the Saints will be counting on some of their own young receivers to step up and realize their potential in 2019. Second-year pro Tre’Quan Smith is primarily an outside receiver, while Meredith, second-year pro Keith Kirkwood and third-year pro Austin Carr could all play in the slot.

“As a group of young receivers, I think they’ll improve,” Payton said Tuesday, when he mentioned that group as one of the top reasons for optimism heading into the 2019 season. “And I still consider Cam young.”

The Saints don’t need any of them to be saviors. They should get more production from veteran receiver Ted Ginn Jr. this year after half of his 2018 season was wiped out by injury. And they made a big move by adding tight end Jared Cook -- the best pass-catching tight end available in free agency. Cook’s versatility should be a great fit in an offense that thrives on high-percentage throws from quarterback Drew Brees.

But we’re still talking about a team that had only two players with more than 35 receptions last year -- receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara.

We’re still talking about an offense that needs some receivers to step up.

Smith was the first one Payton was asked about on Tuesday. The third-round draft pick from Central Florida flashed some big-play potential as a rookie, along with an impressive 6-foot-1, 210-pound frame. But he also showed a lot of inconsistency and admitted throughout the year that he was still trying to grasp some nuances of the playbook.

Smith had 28 catches for 427 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season. But he caught only eight passes over his final seven games, including the playoffs.

When asked if he believes Smith can make “a jump” this year, Payton replied, “He needs to.”

“He came out at the beginning of the season and had some big games,” Payton said. “I think you’ll see him improve. … I think one more year in for a few of those rookies, we’re gonna see a little bit more consistency.”

As for Meredith, Payton said he “is someone I think will be healthy.”

It’s no surprise that health was the first thing Payton mentioned, as that has been Meredith’s biggest hurdle over the past two years. After a breakout 2016 season with the Chicago Bears (66 catches, 888 yards, four TDs), the undrafted 6-foot-3, 207-pounder missed the entire 2017 season with that devastating knee injury. He tore his ACL and suffered other ligament damage.

The injury was severe enough that the Bears let Meredith get away as a restricted free agent, only offering him the lowest qualifying tender and declining to match the Saints’ two-year, $9.5 million offer.

The Bears looked prudent in 2018, when Meredith battled an ankle injury in training camp and some nagging swelling in the knee before landing on injured reserve. But Meredith expects to be full-go by the start of spring practices. And the Saints still have some optimism in him after he caught a total of nine passes for 114 yards and a TD last season.

To keep Meredith around, the Saints reduced his total in salary and potential bonuses from $5.05 million to $2.95 million, guaranteeing a total of $1.5 million.

Kirkwood, meanwhile, was a bit of a revelation for the Saints last year as an undrafted 6-3, 210-pounder from Temple. After being promoted from the practice squad, he made his first appearance in Week 10. He finished with 15 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns, including the playoffs.

And Carr caught 10 passes for 102 yards and two TDs last year, including the playoffs.

The jury is still out on all of them. But the opportunity to make that “jump” is definitely there.