Saints’ pass game evolving as Meredith, Smith vie for snaps
METAIRIE, La. (AP) — When Saints rookie receiver Tre’Quan Smith picked his jersey number, he had a choice between 10 or 18.
The number 10 held no personal significance to Smith previously, but he knew it meant something to fans in New Orleans.
Brandin Cooks, the Saints’ first-round choice in 2014, wore that number until he was traded to New England in 2017. So Smith, never shy about discussing his own high standards, went with that.
“It meant a lot, what he did on the field when he was here,” Smith said of Cooks, who had two 1,000-yard seasons in New Orleans and is now with the Los Angeles Rams.
“It just boosts the expectations of like, what I have to do. Because I know the guy who wore it before me, he was a great player. So, I want to be a great player.”
The 6-foot-2 Smith is one of two receivers who could grow into significant roles in New Orleans’ passing game. The other is Cameron Meredith, a free-agent acquisition who led Chicago in receiving two seasons ago before missing all of last season with a knee injury.
Smith unabashedly endorses the notion that he was one of the steals of last spring’s draft when he was selected in the third round — 91st overall — out of Central Florida.
Saints receivers coach Curtis Johnson said the 6-3 Meredith has the ability to give the Saints some of what they lost when the franchise’s career receiving leader, Marques Colston, retired after the 2015 season.
“When you talk about red zone and third down, one thing you want to do is you want to have length” on the field, said Johnson, who also was Meredith’s position coach in Chicago two seasons ago. “He has the skills to separate in small spaces. For big guys, that’s tough.”
Johnson said Meredith can play out wide, but is particularly adept at executing “seam” routes down the middle of the field as a slot receiver, particularly against smaller defensive backs.
“There’s a lot of small DBs in the league, and you love to see him match up with small guys, especially in the slot,” Johnson said.
Last season, Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn were the most productive members of New Orleans’ receiving group; Thomas had 1,245 yards and five touchdown catches, while Ginn had 787 yards and four TDs receiving.
Both are back. But if Meredith returns to his form of 2016 — 888 yards, four TDs — and Smith develops quickly, quarterback Drew Brees could find it easier to punish defenses for shading coverage toward a particular side of the field, or a particular receiver.
Smith missed a number of offseason practices with a hamstring injury, but was able to take part in summer workouts Brees hosted in California.
Since camp opened, Smith periodically has been working with the first-team offense, and Brees has connected with him deep downfield already.
“He can run,” Saints coach Sean Payton said, but offered only measured praise beyond that.
“He’s making some good plays and then all of a sudden he’s having a few plays that he’s got to correct,” Payton said. “His stance and start still need work, but (it’s) something he’s been focused on.”
Meredith had reconstructive knee surgery a little less than a year ago. He’d been easing his way back into on-field work during the offseason. Coaches are still monitoring his snap count during camp, but when he is on the field, he appears to run routes without limitations.
“I’m out here practicing and felt good, so that’s a good sign,” Meredith said, adding that the opportunity to work with Brees is “amazing.”
“He’s such a leader,” Meredith said, specifying that he has picked up on elements of Brees’ preparation and work ethic that other players can adopt, regardless of the position they play. “He’s very detailed about everything.”
Johnson calls Meredith “smart beyond his years,” explaining that the fourth-year pro “hasn’t played much, but he’s mature ... and having Drew on his side is awesome.”
Even before Meredith got back on the field, he appeared to have made a good impression on Brees.
“I like talking to him. I like his attitude. I like what I’ve seen from his prior film. I like his size and his strength,” Brees said earlier this offseason. “He fits the system well and I think we’re going to be able to do a lot of things with him.”