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Stopgap? Fill-in? Unheralded WR Cam Meredith looks like a keeper

As recently as the first month of this season, Cam Meredith was just another unheralded wide receiver with potential — he wasn’t even active in the first two games of the season.

“You see the mistakes young players make and you don’t know,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “They teeter, they flash. Cam showed enough last year — you’re intrigued by it. But is he going to take the next step? Is he going to turn the corner? Is he going to become a consistent player and not a flash in the pan?

If a 13-game sample is any indication, Meredith has answered all three questions in the affirmative. The 6-3, 207-pound second-year pro from Illinois State and St. Joseph High School in Westchester — an undrafted free agent in 2015 — leads the Bears with 62 receptions for 827 yards (13.3 avg.) and four touchdowns. He is coming off back-to-back 100-yard games — nine receptions for 135 yards and a touchdown against  the Redskins last week; nine receptions for 104 yards against the Packers in Week 15.

“I’m definitely pleased,” said Meredith, a quarterback in his first two seasons at Illinois State before converting to wide receiver as a junior. “Under the circumstances, when you get a shot like that you have to take advantage of it — that’s mostly what was on my mind.

Bears wide receiver Cam Meredith (81) stiff arms Redskins free safety Will Blackmon (41) for extra yardage in the Bears' 41-21 loss Sunday. Meredith had nine receptions for 135 yards and a touchdown in the game. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

“I feel like I put in the work. I was ready. I just hadn’t had the experience. Once things started to get rolling, I was becoming a better player and making plays out there.”

Meredith, who had 11 receptions for 120 yards in 11 games as a rookie in 2015, looked like a stop-gap in place of Kevin White, the Bears’ 2015 No. 1 draft pick who suffered a season-ending fractured left fibula in Week 4 against the Lions. But Meredith has made enough of the opportunity that he now looks like a building block. In 11 games since White was injured, Meredith has 56 receptions for 775 yards and four touchdowns. Only 12 players in the NFL have more receiving yards in that span — and none of them have had three quarterbacks throwing to them like Meredith has with Brian Hoyer, Jay Cutler and Matt Barkley.

“Where Cam has made the biggest jump is he’s become very consistent,” Loggains said, “He’s become reliable and the quarterbacks trust him.”

Hoyer and Barkley in particular have leaned on Meredith. In four full games with Hoyer, Meredith was targeted 35 times, with 26 receptions for 295 yards. In five full games with Barkley, Meredith has been targeted 46 times, with 29 receptions for 397 yards and two touchdowns.

Cutler never really had the chance to develop that rapport in training camp and the preseason and it showed in the regular season. In three games with Cutler, Meredith was targeted eight times, with six receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown — including a Hail Mary that Meredith caught against the Buccaneers for a 50-yard touchdown.

Barkley in particular has developed a chemistry with Meredith, with 18 receptions for 239 yards in the past two games.

“He plays hard,” Barkley said. “I think his reaction in the way he always wants to keep moving after the catch is impressive. He’s grown in a lot of ways in regards to finding open windows and feeling the defense — not just running his route as it says on paper.”

Meredith’s ability to use that “feel” to his advantage — a nuance that can make all the difference for a wide receiver — is and  learned trait.

“Everything goes back to experience and reps,” Meredith said. “I can’t say it enough because once you start to get a feel for the game, you do start to feel windows getting in and out of breaks. If you put in the time and you start seeing it in the film room, you start getting a knack for it. I think I have.”