"Me and Drew, catching those balls. ... It was like: I'm back, you know?"
Photo by Michael C. Hebert/Saints
After a disastrous detour in San Diego, former Saint Robert Meachem is a Saint
METAIRIE, La. (AP) - The first practice of Robert Meachem's second stint with the Saints ended, he pulled off his No. 17 jersey and shoulder pads, then started running extra pass routes for Drew Brees on a mostly empty field.
Those moments on Wednesday afternoon brought back fond memories of a time when he was thought of as something far better than a free-agent flame-out.
"Me and Drew, catching those balls. ... It was like: I'm back, you know?" Meachem said. "I'm just happy to be back."
Although Meachem was raised in Oklahoma and played college football at Tennessee, he repeatedly referred to New Orleans as "home."
His performances in the Big Easy produced a big free-agent offer last year from San Diego: four years, nearly $26 million, with $14 million guaranteed. He never found his grove with the Chargers, however, catching just 14 passes for 207 yards and two TDs - both against the Saints - last season. He was cut after this preseason, leaving San Diego labeled as a bust.
"It's just a tough break. Every system doesn't fit every guy," Meachem said. "I feel like coming home, the system fits me well. I did a few good things in this offense. I think this is the best place for me."
The best season of Meachem's career came in 2009, when he caught 45 passes for 722 yards and nine touchdowns in helping the Saints win their only Super Bowl title. In returning to New Orleans, Meachem is only two years removed from a season in which he caught 40 passes for 620 yards and six TDs.
Saints coach Sean Payton, who made Meachem his first-round pick in 2007, said he did not necessarily believe it was right to judge Meachem by his lone disappointing season with the Chargers.
"It took him a couple of years here (to become productive) and once he got going, there are a lot of things he does very well," Payton said. "I am excited we were able to get him. I know he is as well."
Payton also pointed out - albeit rounding up to the nearest year - that Meachem, who turns 29 on Sept. 28, should still have more left to give.
Meachem said Payton "knows what he can do with me. He knows what I can do and I just know he's going to put me in the best position to make plays and to help the team."
Meachem has his old number back and a locker next to veteran Lance Moore, not far from where his old locker was. This time, though, his margin for error may be thinner. The Saints gave him only a one-year deal. There are also questions about whether knee problems earlier in his career have caught up to him, taking away the burst of speed that made him one of Brees' most dangerous deep threats for much of three seasons.
"All that negative talk about how my body is broken and all that. I heard all of those things," Meachem said, laughing when asked if he'd lost a step. "I love to hear things like that because now I get a chance to just really go show the world my gift - again."
Brees didn't seem to think Meachem was all that much different from when he left.
"Just watching him run around, he looks as good as ever," Brees said. "I look forward to getting him incorporated back in."
There were practical reasons to bring Meachem back. The Saints had only two receivers - Moore and Marques Colston - with regular season experience going into their Week 1 opener against Atlanta. The three other receivers were rookie Kenny Stills, 2012 draft pick Nick Toon (who spent his rookie season in injured reserve) and multi-year practice quad player Andy Tanner.
But Meachem believes there's more to it than that. He noted that Payton called him on the day he was released by San Diego, and while keeping the substance of the phone call private, he added, "It was a conversation between a coach and player that was well needed for the player.
"Maybe not so much for the coach, but for the player - for me - at that moment, I needed that conversation."
Notes: The only Saints players to miss Wednesday's practice were reserve S Isa Abdul-Quddus and rookie DE Glenn Foster. ... Payton spoke for the first time about his rationale of placing veteran LB Jon Vilma on injured reserve/designated for return on Tuesday. The designation means Vilma, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee last month, will miss at least eight weeks (seven games on the schedule). "It really made sense. ... With where he is at in regards to his rehab, it gives us a good chance to look at him. It gives us a little bit of roster space and the ability to get him back."