SAN DIEGO -- The Chargers were nearing the end of an 11-on-11 passing drill last Wednesday when coach Norv Turner approached wide receiver Robert Meachem with an important question.
"Have you caught a ball?" Turner said to the team's marquee free agent pickup, who signed a potential $25.9 million contract in March.
When Meachem shook his head, Turner immediately called a play to change that. Meachem was still smiling about it a day later, because it was a significant reminder that times have changed for him.
Instead of being a spoke in a team's passing wheel, Meachem is as close to being the hub as at any point in his career. He is being asked to fill the No. 1 role that was vacated when Pro Bowler Vincent Jackson signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay. When he thinks about what awaits him, the Tulsa native with a slow, easy country drawl can't help but smile.
"As a competitor it's something you've wanted since you were a kid," he says of having a leading role, "and now you get the opportunity to show the world the gift that God gave you."
That wasn't always the case in New Orleans, where he never started more than seven games in a season despite being a first-round draft pick in 2007. The Saints were so deep in pass-catching threats -- at wide receiver, tight end and running back -- that players had to learn to be patient and check their egos at the sideline.
It wasn't uncommon for Meachem to be targeted a total of 10 times in a month, then have 10 or 13 passes thrown his way in a game. That was the beauty of the Saints' prolific offense, led by former Chargers quarterback Drew Brees. Defenses were often on their heels because New Orleans could attack from so many different angles.
San Diego is similarly built. At tight end, Antonio Gates looks rejunvenated, rookie Ladarius Green looks like a bigger wideout and veteran newcomer Dante Rosario has opened eyes during workouts. At receiver, Malcom Floyd and Vincent Brown return and veteran additions Eddie Royal and Roscoe Parrish could give them a quick, shifty slot presence that has been absent in recent years.
"The basic philosophy is there offensively, so a lot of it is going to look the same," says Turner. "We're a big-play offense (that's ranked high in average yards per attempt) and we're probably going to stay up in that area. But with the changes we've had, the people we've brought in, there are going to be some guys doing things that they haven't had a chance to do. A year ago our tailbacks combined to catch over 100 balls. As much as we push the ball up the field, I'd like to think that Eddie Royal will get a lot of those catches (by running backs) because he becomes an option underneath. We haven't had that guy, and Eddie's really been impressive as the guy who runs the option routes, runs the seams, runs the post -- some higher percentage stuff. That's the fun thing of it, getting some guys in here and finding out what they do well and allowing them to do it.
"Meachem can get up the field. He's a deep threat, but he's also a more versatile receiver than I thought he'd be when you looked at tape. He can do a lot more things than he did in New Orleans because they didn't need those things from him because they had other guys. But he's an outstanding route running, he's a good 'feel' receiver and he does have outstanding hands."
Meachem knows he has big shoes to fill, literally and figuratively. Jackson surpassed 1,000 yards receiving in each of his last three full seasons and averaged at least 17.2 yards per catch in each of those years. He often was a safety blanket for QB Philip Rivers, in that Rivers could toss the ball high into coverage and the 6-foot-5 Jackson could go get it.
Asked about the comparisons that have already come, Meachem says: "He's Vincent Jackson, 6-5 guy; I'm Robert Meachem, 6-2 guy. I'm faster than Vincent; he's probably stronger than me. But the bottom-line comparison is, we both want to win, from what I see on film. I feel like he's a good route runner, he has good hands and he does a good job of separating. I feel I can do the same thing. It's just that now I get an opportunity to show that I can do the same thing. It's going to be different being a full-time guy, because you've got to get your body used to playing a lot of plays. But I look forward to the opportunity."
A key could be how quickly Rivers and his new receivers get acclimated to each other. Two years ago, because of injuries and a holdout in his receiving corps, he completed passes to 17 different players. It's doubtful that will happen this year, but it's possible he could have at least four new pass catchers to work with -- and likely more.
"It's as new as an offseason as has ever been for me," Rivers says. "There's Meachem, there's Royal, there's (fullback LeRon) McClain. There's Rosario. There are more guys from a communication standpoint, that I throw the ball to, who are new. So it's as crucial of an offseason from a standpoint of getting in a groove of, who we're going to be?
It's exciting, it's fresh. We've got different types of guys, from the standpoint of the way they move and some of the things we can do with them. Meach, in a lot of ways, is similar to Vincent from the standpoint of the way he pushes it down the field and he can really run and he's rangy. He's not as big, but he plays long. So far it's been smooth, but it's been new. When we talk or they ask questions, I'm getting questions that I haven't really had to discuss in a while because, for the most part, we had the same guys. But this is different because, from Day 1, you know you're going to have to build something and you know who it's going to be with. The question now is, 'Hey, who are we? What are we like? What wrinkles, what things are we going to do?' It's fun to see it progress."