JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -The highlight of Robert Meachem's rookie season was a foot race against his older brother in a parking lot during Super Bowl week.
That's not exactly what the New Orleans Saints had in mind when they selected the former Tennessee wide receiver in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft, but Meachem saw the way he ran that day in Scottsdale, Ariz., as a good sign.
``My brother, he always wanted to race me. And I knew when we lined up and we raced, I could feel that step coming back,'' Meachem said.
Meachem, who signed a five-year, $11 million contract after being drafted 27th overall last year, has yet to dress for a game. His rookie season was marred by a series of setbacks and questions over whether he'd prove to be a draft bust.
He showed up for rookie camp overweight and out of shape, struggling to keep up before ultimately twisting his left ankle.
During minicamp about a month later, he hurt his right knee and had to have arthroscopic surgery to repair his medial meniscus. It was the same knee that required surgery in 2003, when he took a medical redshirt year at Tennessee.
Meachem was able to get back to practice by training camp, but he was in pain. He walked with a limp. His speed was diminished. His passing routes were not as crisp as coaches wanted.
During the regular season, he spent practices working with the scout team and game days watching from the sidelines in a sweat suit.
``Being a competitor, that's probably the most frustrating thing ever, having to sit out the whole season and you know you can't help your team,'' Meachem said. ``I couldn't run. My speed was a great deal for me, and for me to not be able to run past people and stretch the field, it was hard.''
Week after week, Meachem had to answer questions about when he thought he might finally play. To some extent, he's still answering them. His response is always that of someone who believed his miserable first pro season served a purpose.
``I know God puts us through certain tests for a reason and that was one of the tests he put me through to see if I was going to keep believing in him, have faith in him,'' Meachem said. ``So I kept having faith in him and right know I'm running as good as just about anybody out there.''
The proof is on the practice field. He has beaten defenders deep and made tough catches in traffic since training camp began last week.
Quarterback Drew Brees named Meachem first when asked which players have stood out lately.
Saints receiver David Patten, a 12-year veteran, wasn't surprised.
Patten said Meachem came to him ``out of the blue'' during the offseason and asked to be his training partner.
``I'm pretty intense with my workouts and figured he would taper off about two or three weeks into it,'' said Patten, who played on all three of the New England Patriots' Super Bowl championship teams. ``We'd always work to failure, where you just couldn't go anymore, and I'd be like, 'Well, I'm not going to see him any more.' But every morning he'd show up at the door at 8 o'clock on the dot. Or if he was a little late, he'd call and say, 'I'm coming.'''
Meachem, who called Patten ``an older brother from another mother,'' drove about an hour each way from his home west of New Orleans to Patten's home in Mandeville.
``He knows what's expected of him,'' Patten said. ``He knows that he's a No. 1 pick that hasn't seen the field yet and they didn't draft him to be a backup. He knows that and deals with that on a daily basis.''
Patten suspects Meachem's performance this year will make it tough for coaches to keep him out of the lineup for long.
``The limp is officially gone. He looks so much better,'' Patten said. ``He's playing with a lot more confidence. I really think he's starting to come into his own.''
Coach Sean Payton is often careful not to heap praise on his players, especially young ones competing for playing time. Still, Payton said he has been encouraged by Meachem's performance and complimented him on some of the plays he's made during practice.
``It's good to see him running around without the gait anymore and picking things up,'' Payton said. ``It's a lot different for him now.''

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