The Case of Cameron Meredith: how the free agent story of a receiver with only 1,008 receiving yards can teach you a lot about NFL roster building
Since the beginning of the 21st century, sports fandom has evolved. Gone are the days of platitudes (“They got set the tone!”) and generalities (“We lost because we didn’t protect the football!”). The average sports fan has grown smarter.
Whereas once a sports fan would look at their team's roster moves purely as talent-in, talent-out, we are now conditioned to recognize the other reality: salary-in, salary-out. Thanks to Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s, and Michael Lewis, professional sports teams got wise. Fans followed suit in due time. We started to understand that building a roster wasn’t only about talent but what kind of talent you paid for.
Except as time has gone on, this narrative has co-opted our thinking in such a way that we’ve come to occupy the same head space as before. The platitudes and generalities never really went away. They, too, evolved.
We used to think it was all about the talent. Now, we think it’s all about the Benjamin’s.
As an example, when the New England Patriots traded away Brandin Cooks, the reaction to the move was the Pats wanted to avoid getting caught overpaying as Cooks was set to be a free agent. When the Arizona Cardinals cut Tyrann Mathieu, it was because they couldn’t afford him (Mathieu refused a pay cut).
These observations, while true, are incomplete. Because every action is based on context. It’s not that the Patriots didn’t necessarily want Cooks or didn’t want to pay him, it was because they didn’t want to pay the position. It wasn't that the Cardinals didn't want Mathieu, they just didn't want to invest in two players playing in the same position group - along with former teammate Patrick Peterson, who is entering the last year of a five-year, $48-million dollar deal.
In the NFL, you are overlooking crucial details when you imagine a roster move as a simple transaction. Because each team has a model for how they plan to build their roster. The model changes over time as the NFL landscape shifts (or sometimes never gets the chance to take hold at all, if you're the Cleveland Browns and fire your GM after 18 months). Some teams invest in their defence and offensive line, other teams will put money into their skilled offensive players. But when money goes one way, it can't go somewhere else.
A recent example are the current Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles. You’ve probably read all the articles about how the Eagles built their Super Bowl winning roster. Their model is similar to how the Seahawks built theirs four years ago. Or how the Green Bay Packers won theirs in 2010. Those teams didn’t have to pay their quarterbacks and so they could afford to pay everyone else.
Once the Packers paid Rodgers, they couldn’t afford to pay as much to as many other players. The entire structure of their payroll changed. This is just another way of saying that the structure of how they had to build their roster changed. They went from a team that was paying two wide receivers starting NFL wide receiver money to a team that chose to only pay for one and spend the surplus elsewhere.
Sports teams operate on a balance sheet like any organization. They have salary cap specialists whose entire job is to look objectively at where the money is invested, to look at players as assets. When we talk about player contracts in terms of ‘value’, that’s what we’re talking about. A guy isn’t ‘valuable’ because he is paid less than some other similarly talented player on some other team. That only works in a vacuum. To a team, sure, that’s a bonus. The real value is in how those savings allow them to spend elsewhere.
Take for instance the case of the newest New Orleans Saints receiver, Cameron Meredith.
Cam Meredith played three seasons for the Chicago Bears, putting up a nice 888-yard season in 2016 before tearing his ACL after three games in 2017. Entering this free agency period, the Bears had hired a new coach, Matt Nagy, implementing a new offensive system. The Bears decided to tender Meredith at low-round level (tendering RFA's means you offer more money the higher the round you tender then you gain a high draft pick should another team sign the player).
When the Saints offered Meredith a contract worth up to $10-million, the Bears took the full five days and then walked away. A contingent of Bears fans were furious. The arguments had merit. Meredith is young, talented, and decently proven. The Bears have made it abundantly clear they are doing everything to make sophomore QB Mitch Trubisky’s life easier. The questions is: why let Meredith walk for a meager $10-million?
(it should be noted that the Bears don't lose Meredith for nothing - they are going to receive a mid-round pick in the 2019 Draft)
The most popular narrative is that Meredith was coming off an injury and the team had doubts about his recovery. Critics will argue the Bears just signed another receiver, Allen Robinson, for four times the money who also was coming off an ACL injury (we’ll ignore for a moment that Robinson is a more proven player and a more highly touted player coming out of college, i.e. a stronger pedigree). That argument has merit. But the narrative still doesn’t tell the whole story.
The whole story requires some context. Roster building context.
The Bears just invested heavily in the receiver position. That meant the Bears had to decide how much they were willing to invest in other receivers on their balance sheet. That decision was likely made more complicated by Nagy's new offense being predicated on spreading around the ball and skill-specific matchups. Nagy loves involving tight-ends - the Bears just paid for one, Trey Burton. More complication: Meredith plays the same receiver position as Robinson, the 'Z' or flanker. The other receiver position in Nagy's offense - the 'X' or split end - is for a receiver with top-end speed, who can take the top off the defence. That's not Meredith. The Bears also just signed Taylor Gabriel to play in the slot. That's also not Meredith's position.
So to answer the question, why let Meredith go, the answer is simple: the Bears decided $10 million was more than they were willing to pay for a player with one 800-yard season and a recently torn ACL, who would either be backing up their highest-paid offensive player or playing out of position.
That's the NFL. Teams make moves that, on the surface, seem irrational. But NFL teams are almost too rational. More often than not, your teams' biggest screw ups are because they're rational - like calling a punt on 4th-and-1 or signing Joe Flacco to a contract extension because he won the Super Bowl. When a player the fan base likes is allowed to leave, those kinds of moves bring out the truly irrational hot takes, circa 1995.