By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Like any true competitor, Bears receiver Cameron Meredith keeps a mental checklist of goals. It’s driven him to this point.
Even Meredith didn’t foresee his rise to NFL starting receiver when he was a reserve quarterback at Illinois State. But one checkmark at a time, he began accomplishing goals — make the Bears’ roster, make a catch, record a touchdown, become a starter.
“There are little step-by-steps to take to being a great player in this league,” Meredith saidMonday, speaking to reporters at Halas Hall.
It seems Meredith may only be getting started on his checklist.
An undrafted free agent signing in 2015, Meredith has been the Bears’ most consistent receiver this season. He with the team with 62 receptions for 827 yards and four touchdowns. While the Bears’ offense has been in flux with three quarterbacks and constant moving parts, Meredith has been reliable.
Meredith had his second straight game of nine receptions and more than 100 yards receiving in Saturday’s loss to the Redskins, which brought a career-high 135 yards and a touchdown. He’s surpassed the century mark in receiving yards four times in nine starts this season.
“He’s become more consistent,” quarterback Jay Cutler said of Meredith in November. “I think he puts more pressure on himself. He’s trying to be more or a pro. He’s taking more ownership in his game.”
Cutler gained a trust in Meredith, often looking to him as the first read. He felt confident in throwing Meredith’s direction. Brian Hoyer then made Meredith one of his top targets in looking to lead the offense while minimizing mistakes. Now, it’s Matt Barkley who has counted on Meredith in often attempting to bring the Bears back in the fourth quarter.
Moving beyond 2016, Meredith is someone on whom the Bears can rely on. That’s more than they can say for any other receiver on the roster.
Alshon Jeffery has probably failed to earn a long-term deal with his performance this season while playing under the franchise tag. He has just one touchdown and missed four games due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension. His future with the organization is in doubt.
Kevin White has played in just three full games, suffering a broken fibula in Week 4 that ended his second season. The No. 7 pick of the 2015 draft, White hasn’t even gotten his career off the ground. Who knows if he’ll ever be the player whom general manager Ryan Pace sought, especially after two surgeries on the same leg.
Eddie Royal has played in just 18 games in two seasons with the Bears. Sunday’s season finale will mark his 14th game missed, with various injuries keeping him from the field since he arrived in Chicago. With the $10 million guaranteed paid from a three-year, $15-million deal, Royal may be cut loose.
Decisions at receiver are dependent upon each other. Royal seems to be on his way out, and Jeffery is more of a priority because White is an unknown. With the Bears likely making a move at quarterback, they need to supply consistency at receiver. There’s none to be found with the three Pace brought to the Bears.
That’s where Meredith becomes so important. He’s what the Bears hoped to have at receiver — quick feet and sure hands. Throughout this season, Meredith has improved his route running, which he considers an important progression.
“Just take it one day at a time,” Meredith said of his evolving game. “Getting better, building off the momentum, finishing off this year. I definitely want to increase my play speed and stuff like that. I think with the experience taken from this year, I can carry it over in training camp and use that next year.”
Meredith arrived in the daunting position of an undrafted free agent, earning his place on the practice squad after 2015 training camp. He managed to stick on the 53-man roster this season but wasn’t even made active prior to Week 3.
Even the Bears didn’t quite know what they had in Meredith. Now, he seems to be the only certainty they have at receiver moving forward.
Step by step, check by check, Meredith has earned his place as an NFL receiver.