The start of Cam Meredith’s Bears career was as heartwarming as its end was devastating. Signed as an undrafted free agent by his hometown team, the St. Joseph’s High School and Illinois State graduate made the team in 2015 and was their leading receiver in 2016.
However, two weeks from starting the regular season as the Bears’ No. 1 receiver last year, Meredith tore the anterior cruciate ligament and partially tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
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On Wednesday, the Bears declined to match the Saints’ offer sheet for Meredith, which guarantees him $5.4 million and can pay up to $9.6 million, plus incentives, over two years.
The Bears clearly weren’t comfortable with Meredith’s recovering knee. If they were, they would have issued him a second-round tender as a restricted free agent last month, all but guaranteeing his 2018 return for $2.914 million. Instead, the Bears gave him an original-round tender, which paid $1.907 million but allowed other teams to try to poach him without giving up a draft pick.
The Saints were more confident in Meredith’s health, though the receiver hesitates to put a public timeline on his return to 100 percent. The Saints presented a contract that showed their faith, and the Bears decided against doing the same. It is not unusual for teams to differ in their medical evaluations, but the Saints’ offer sheet served as a de facto second opinion about his knee.
Having finished last in the NFL with 2,811 passing yards last season, the Bears could hardly scoff at giving new coach Matt Nagy and quarterback Mitch Trubisky a homegrown, 25-year-old skill position player, if healthy. They had the money — the Bears rank fifth in the NFL in available salary-cap space, according to Spotrac — but decided against using it in an otherwise free-spending offseason.
Three of the Bears’ top 12 cap hits for 2018 belong to pass catchers signed last month: receiver Allen Robinson ($11.06 million), tight end Trey Burton ($5.675 million) and wideout Taylor Gabriel ($5.5 million). Josh Bellamy, another restricted free agent, is returning for $1.907 million. He’ll join 2015 first-round pick Kevin White, who will be in a walk year.
With Meredith gone, the team’s remodeling of the receiver position is left with one more hole to fill. The Bears could turn to the middle rounds of the draft later this month or sift through what little is left on the free-agent market.
Meredith, meanwhile, will join future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and reigning offensive rookie of the year Alvin Kamara on a team that believes it can win the Super Bowl. He’ll have position coach Curtis Johnson, who served in the same role with the Bears in 2016, when Meredith caught 66 passes for 888 yards. Meredith will make three times more than he has made in his career to this point. And like the Bears’ leading receivers in 2015 and 2017 — Alshon Jeffery and Kendall Wright, both of whom eventually left via free agency — something to prove to his old bosses.