Here’s a trivia question: can you name the only wide receiver the Bears have developed since general manager Ryan Pace arrived in Chicago in 2015?
That would be Cameron Meredith, the receiver Pace just gave away to the New Orleans Saints for nothing.
Before we examine the unknowns with Meredith — most notably his surgically reconstructed left knee — let’s look at what we do know about the player: he’s 25 years old, he has good size, he’s a savvy route runner and he has reliable hands with a good catch radius. And until his knee sustained a brutal hit in the Bears’ third preseason game last August, Meredith was a young, ascending offensive weapon who Pace was trusting to be his No. 1 wide receiver.
So what changed?
The only reasonable answer is the knee injury, which must be considered the No. 1 factor why the Bears did not match the New Orleans Saints’ 2-year, $9.6 million ($5.4 million) offer sheet that Meredith signed last Friday.
But if the Bears had that much concern about Meredith’s knee, then why did they even tender him at the low-level $1.9 million in the first place? That’s still significant money for a player with a bum knee.
When examining moves by NFL general managers, it’s important to look at the logic involved at the time of the decision. It’s easy to view everything in hindsight (and by the way, the results do matter), but the process in which decision-makers make their conclusions is critical.
In the case of Cam Meredith, it’s hard to find very much logic.
Let’s start with the decision to tender Meredith at just $1.9 million instead of $2.9 million, which would have required a team to cough up a second-round draft pick to sign him. Either the Bears severely underestimated the amount of interest Meredith would receive on the open market, or they decided he wasn’t worth anything more than $1.9 million.
I have problems with both conclusions, because they both indicate the Bears undervalued their own asset.
Before the knee injury, Meredith was a very good wide receiver. Just a year after going undrafted, he put up 66 catches in a season that included Matt Barkley playing quarterback for seven games. And it’s not like the Bears failed to recognize this. He was slotted as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver going into 2017.
Obviously the knee changed things, but it’s hard see the logic in Pace drawing a line between $1.9 million and $2.9 million for a homegrown, 25-year-old wide receiver — again, the only receiver developed here in Chicago since Pace arrived. Meredith is a high-character teammate, the type of player Pace has gone out of his way to add during his three-plus years as GM.
Meredith was given the same low-level tender that the Bears gave Josh Bellamy, and Meredith is obviously a much more valuable player when healthy. He’s good enough that trying to save $1 million isn’t worth possibly losing him to a different team. If you feel good enough about the knee to give him $1.9 million, then you should feel good enough to give him $2.9 million and guarantee that you keep him — especially when you still have a big need for wide receivers.
The only exception here would be if the Bears felt very confident that no other teams would have interest in Meredith coming off the knee injury. But given the ascending production he gave the Bears in 2016, this thinking seems naive at best. Once again, it points to undervaluing your own asset. Meredith ended up getting not one, but two offers, as the Ravens also extended an offer sheet to the wide receiver.
It’s also worth pointing out the timing of the original tender. Exactly when Pace decided to go with the low-level tender is unclear, but the news came out on Mar. 12, which was the first day teams were allowed to contact free agents. By the morning of Mar. 13, the Bears already had agreements in place with Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel. That afternoon was when the “right of first refusal” tenders for Meredith, Bellamy and cornerback Bryce Callahan were officially filed to the league office and announced publicly.
In other words, Pace knew he was adding Robinson and Gabriel when he officially placed the low-level tender on Meredith. Perhaps this influenced his decision not to give Meredith an extra $1 million and all but guarantee he would be back.
But again, that thinking seems short-sighted given the Bears’ lack of depth that persists at the wide receiver position. This team is one Allen Robinson injury away from pretty much having the same depth as they did a year ago when Meredith got hurt.
Fortunately, with Matt Nagy running the show and Trey Burton at tight end, the offense as a whole should be better prepared to overcome any wide receiver problems that arise. And more help could come via the NFL Draft in two weeks. These were undoubtedly factors that Pace and Nagy weighed in the last few days when debating whether or not Meredith was worth $5.4 million guaranteed.
Time will tell whether or not letting Meredith walk away was a mistake. If he fully recovers from his knee injury, he will likely be a valuable weapon for Sean Payton and Drew Brees in New Orleans and everyone in Chicago will wonder why Pace let a homegrown, 25-year-old wide receiver walk away for nothing. And if the knee doesn’t recover, it will make the Bears’ medical evaluation look good, but then still raises a question as to why Pace was even willing to give $1.9 million to a receiver with that big of a problem in his left knee.
Either way, the logic is lacking.