Robert Meachem has plenty of upside

Can Robert Meachem break through in 2010?

Apparently few people think so, judging by the early draft results. The No. 22 wide receiver in fantasy points in 2009 (130, or 8.1 per game), Robert Meachem is being picked as a ninth-rounder in ESPN.com leagues so far, 33rd at his position.

Any discussion of Meachem can't dismiss his weaknesses:

• He's one of a multitude of weapons in a loaded offense that includes such names as Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, Jeremy Shockey, David Thomas and Reggie Bush, not to mention a deep running back corps led by Pierre Thomas. The deeper the offense, the tougher the fight for opportunities.

• Meachem was overshadowed by several of those names during the postseason, finishing each of the New Orleans Saints' three playoff games with fewer receiving yards than Bush, Colston, Henderson and Thomas. Henderson, the receiver who most directly threatens Meachem's targets, was a postseason standout, catching 15 total passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns.

• He's coming off toe surgery that cost him OTAs as well as the first two weeks of training camp. Such setbacks might put him behind in the competition.

That last item is most relevant to the discussion. Missed preseason time means the player is likelier not to be up to full speed by Week 1, and few things are less attractive to fantasy owners than the player who spends much of his first few games playing catch-up. If you're a member of the anti-Meachem camp, that's your key argument.

Still, I play for upside, and when I see a player with Meachem's skills going as late as the ninth round, I'm unquestionably taking those risks.

The list of his strengths is every bit as lengthy:

• Meachem has great hands, as evidenced by his not committing a single drop in 2009. Granted, Henderson, once a drop machine, has done plenty to improve himself in that area the past couple of seasons, but he's still not Meachem's equal.

• For all the negatives about Meachem's postseason, his second half (or second half plus one game) was pretty extraordinary. In his final nine games, he was targeted 51 times (ranking second on the Saints), had seven touchdowns and managed 98 fantasy points, significantly more than either Colston (62) or Henderson (48). Debate all you want the value of the more recent set of statistics, but what's a stronger indicator, nine regular-season games or three playoff affairs? It's clear the Saints regard Meachem as a vital cog in their offense, playoff stats be damned.

• Call Henderson the Saints' "deep threat" if you wish, but it was Meachem who actually got more looks deep. In fact, Meachem ranked seventh in the NFL in air yard percentage (76.3) last season (minimum 30 catches). In other words, he's every bit as capable of handling that role as Henderson, who's widely regarded as his competition.

• Meachem also topped all receivers (again, minimum 30 catches) in yards per target (11.5), and if you know anything about rate statistics, it demonstrates his explosive fantasy potential in the event he indeed lands a starting job.

• At 25 years old (he'll turn 26 on Sept. 28), Meachem has a bit of an age advantage, not that Colston (27) or Henderson (28) is an old man by comparison. The Saints are invested in Meachem over the long haul, which means that for every question about his rehabilitation slowing him in the season's early weeks, there's the reply that he might see increased work in the season's later stages.

Perhaps his role -- and the limits that come with it -- will prevent Meachem from bursting into the top 20 wide receivers this season. If the Saints, who historically have spread the ball around, operate identically to how they did throughout the 2009 campaign, maybe he'll finish with identical numbers to his 2009.

But once that elite group, that top 20, flies off the draft board, the Meachem debate boils down to what you prefer from your bench wide receivers: players with good roles or players with upside? Remember, this is the NFL; opportunities often present themselves, especially to deserving players.

I know which type I'd pick: the Meachem type.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.