Saints rookie receiver looking to hit stride in training camp

Published 9:56 pm Saturday, July 28, 2007

Robert Meachem trotted out to his first full training camp practice Friday with a white wrap on his right knee — a reminder of the Saints’ top draft pick’s worrisome physical condition during minicamp in June.

As he walked, he appeared to favor his right leg.

But when it came time to run pass routes against veteran NFL defensive backs, Meachem showed glimpses, at least, of why the Saints hoped he could step in for the departed Joe Horn.

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Planting off that same right leg that was operated on seven weeks ago, he cut to his left for a long sideline pass and snatched the ball cleanly, even while losing his balance and falling to the turf as cornerback Jason David and safety Kevin Kaesviharn closed quickly.

“He’s coming along,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “I think like any rookie receiver that usually comes in, they’re raw, but very talented. He’s no exception. You see glimpses of the things he does that are just very natural, so I’m excited to watch him develop as he kind of gets into camp shape and all those things, just to see what he can do.”

After being taken 27th overall in April’s NFL draft, the former Tennessee star had a rough first month as a pro.

Early in rookie camp, coach Sean Payton complained that Meachem had shown up out of shape, then Meachem sprained his left ankle, which limited his participation in practice to watching and learning while wearing a protective boot on his left foot.

During minicamp, his right knee, the same knee on which he had surgery in 2003, began to swell. Team physicians deemed that Meachem needed arthroscopic surgery to clean out some loose cartilage and repair his medial meniscus, followed by nearly six weeks of rehabilitation.

It seemed like an inauspicious beginning for a player who is expected to compete for a starting job.

Those early days as a pro “were very frustrating,” Meachem recalled Friday. “But it was something where God didn’t want me to participate at that time — that’s how I looked at it.”

Meachem left Tennessee to turn pro after his junior season, when he caught 71 passes for 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns.

At 6-foot-2 and about 210 pounds, the Tulsa, Okla., native has a prototypical receiver’s build. Now, he’ll attempt to join receivers Marques Colston and Devery Henderson in the starting lineup.

A first key step was getting his five-year, $11.3 million contract done this week, a day before the team was due to report to training camp at Millsaps College.

“It was a real big deal to me” to avoid a holdout, Meachem said. “I wanted to show my teammates that I was here for them, show my coaches that I was here for them and get in and learn the system.”

Meachem said he felt “no soreness at all” while running conditioning sprints Thursday and in practices Friday.

He said he believes he can be a starter when the Saints open the regular season Sept. 6 at Indianapolis, but also concedes he has a lot to learn between now and then.

While rookies often don’t crack the starting lineup right away, there certainly is precedent on the Saints for first-year players getting significant playing time. In 2006, Colston, along with fellow rookies Jahri Evans (guard) and Roman Harper (safety), opened the regular season as starters. Reggie Bush technically came off the bench behind veteran Deuce McAllister, but played as much as a starter would.

With Horn now playing in Atlanta, the Saints have open competition for the third receiver’s spot. Among those vying for that spot is veteran David Patten, who’s coming off two disappointing seasons with the Washington Redskins, but who was very sharp Friday afternoon, catching two long passes during 11-on-11 scrimmages.

Payton said he was pleased with Meachem’s early performances and could see that Meachem had been studying the play book because he never appeared confused coming out of the huddle. But the coach stopped short of saying where the new receiver fits on the depth chart.

“We’ll wait and see,” Payton said. “He’s got a lot of ability and talent, but he’s got a lot of work to do.”

That was evident as well, with Meachem dropping several passes.

Receiver’s coach Curtis Johnson kept a critical eye on him, at one point loudly reminding the rookie that he was no longer at Tennessee. He yelled at Meachem about his body position, his route running, his catching technique and his footwork.

“I love that,” Meachem said. “All my life I was taught that you can learn something new every day. If he stays on me … I know I can improve.”