When Harry Douglas tore his ACL on the fifth day of 2009’s training camp, it was not a career-defining injury. Meaning that it would probably not mean the difference between Douglas making a living catching footballs or bagging groceries.
Douglas, as a third round pick the year before, was coming off a solid rookie year in which he had worked his way up the depth chart from fourth to third option and made an impact in the latter half of the season on special teams. It all meant he was poised to grow into a viable role player for the Falcons. His injury would be a hindrance to his growth, but his potential would earn him future opportunities with the Falcons and other NFL teams alike.
On the other hand, for Falcons 2010 fifth round pick Kerry Meier, that may not be the case. His ACL injury suffered at the end of his rookie training camp last summer could potentially be career-defining. It might be the difference between Meier potentially playing several years in the NFL versus never suiting up for a single game.
Meier does not have a high draft status or a productive rookie campaign to buoy his chances of making this year’s roster like Douglas did coming off injury a year ago. There is no proven value on special teams to make him proven depth either. And bluntly, Meier does not have Douglas’s skill and athleticism that makes his upside and potential obviously worth developing. Even if there was another NFL team that liked Meier coming out of Kansas a year ago, they would have only viewed him as a sixth round value at best, which is not exactly the caliber of player that there is a mad scramble to claim in the event the Falcons let him go.
Meier possesses good size and steady hands, but the biggest question mark about him coming into the league was whether or not he had the speed, quickness, and burst to be able to use those traits effectively. Regardless of how big and strong you are, and how much your hands resemble velcro, if you cannot separate from cornerbacks at this level then the quarterback will not throw you the ball, and then those traits are meaningless.
And Meier’s injury directly impacts those question marks about him, and makes him an even bigger question mark. ACL tears sap explosiveness, speed, and the ability to cut, traits and skills that are essential when it comes to running routes and separating from defenders.
When the Falcons drafted Meier, it was likely to be as the heir apparent and future successor to veteran Brian Finneran. Finneran was never the most explosive receiver in his heyday, but was just good enough to manage to be a productive pro and starter for this team for a number of years. Finneran had help from the fact that during his prime the quarterback throwing him the ball was Michael Vick. A big part of his success was how often Michael Vick would extend plays outside the pocket, giving Finneran more time to separate and break off his routes, where his size was an asset and his lack of speed and quickness not as much a hindrance.
Meier does not have this luxury. He is playing with Matt Ryan, who is a traditional dropback passer that likes to get rid of the ball quickly. It puts even more pressure on Meier to be able to separate quickly.
This is why this summer and season will be a critical part of whether Meier has a productive NFL career, or is a guy that is using his sports management degree in a post-playing career sooner rather than later.
Meier won’t be a shoe-in to make the Falcons 2011 roster. Every player ahead of him on the depth chart has a clearly defined role. Roddy White is the team’s No. 1 target and second-most valuable player (behind Ryan). Michael Jenkins is the wily veteran that can serve as the bridge until future superstar in Julio Jones is ready to break out and take over. Douglas is a capable slot receiver, and Eric Weems is a special teams ace coming off a Pro Bowl season. NFL teams almost always keep at least five receivers on their 53-man rosters, but a sixth at times can be a luxury over the course of a long season where injuries accumulate.
Meier will need to carve out a niche for himself. And most likely it will have to be on special teams, an area that Finneran proved himself early on before climbing up the depth chart early in his Falcon career. And as the years accumulated and the speed was sapped, he could always fall back on that as time waned. As the sixth player on the depth chart, it is highly unlikely that Meier will be active most Sundays. And even on occasions where he is, he likely will only see reps on special teams coverage units.
Finneran also was able to showcase his versatility on offense. Another reason why Finneran’s career was extended despite suffering knee injuries in consecutive summers was that he could perform other roles on the Falcons offensive attack that did not always include catching the ball. He was a capable blocker that the team could line up in the slot, on the outside, or occasionally as an H-back or tight end. That versatility made up for the fact that over the past few seasons Finneran’s speed and quickness had all but evaporated and he was unable to consistently beat man coverage from opposing corners.
A similar role might be Meier’s best hope to impress the coaching staff with his offensive potential. Because even if he manages to beat the odds, improve his route-running and be a guy that can beat man coverage, he isn’t likely to rise higher than fourth on the depth chart with White, Jones, and probably Douglas ahead of him going forward. In such a role, he’ll have to bring additional traits to the table besides catching the ball to earn reps on offense.
If there is one major advantage that Meier has as far as his potential to stick in Atlanta beyond this year, it is the fact that he remains eligible for the team’s eight-man practice squad. So if the Falcons find that keeping six receivers too luxurious, then they can potentially stash Meier on the practice squad for a year. And if the Falcons part ways with Michael Jenkins after the 2011 season, it will give Meier a significantly increased chance to earn a spot in 2012.
So while his knee injury may have put his career initially on life support, there is a lot of reason to believe that Meier can still make a valiant recovery and still prove valuable down the road for this team.