A few weeks ago, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton wanted to have a chat with Jakobi Meyers.
“I just remember him pretty much telling me that I was selling myself short, that I have potential,” recalled Meyers. “All I have to do is just live up to it and go out there and show the coaches what I can do.”
At the time of their conversation, Meyers had just one catch through New England’s first five games of the season. Behind Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry on the depth chart, Meyers had played no more than 11 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in any game.
After that conversation, though, his opportunity came. After Week 7′s loss to the 49ers, Edelman was placed on injured reserve following a knee procedure, and Harry was sidelined with a concussion. Meyers has since emerged as Newton’s most reliable target, totaling 23 receptions for 286 receiving yards with a catch rate of 74.2 percent over the past three weeks.
Pro Football Focus has Meyers graded as one of the top three receivers in the league, behind only Green Bay’s Davante Adams and Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson.
“You would’ve thought I was a prophet or something,” Newton said.
For some, the rise is unexpected. For those that know Meyers, his story is far from surprising.
Baseball and books
Growing up in the Atlanta area, Meyers was initially known for two things: baseball and his brains.
While math was his specialty, he also loved to read, and, as a kid, could often be found in the dugout with his nose in a book. For several years, including high school, Meyers participated in Georgia’s annual Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl, a competition in which students are quizzed on 20 pre-selected books. (The only genre he didn’t like was horror.)
With academics and baseball as his top two priorities, football was secondary. Meyers assumed the role of the backup quarterback at Arabia Mountain High School, but he occasionally had to miss practices because of travel baseball commitments. Still, his athleticism and strong arm caught the eye of coach Stanley Pritchett.
“I told his mom, ‘Look, don’t write off football,’ ” Pritchett said.
Meyers wanted to focus on baseball, though, as a shortstop and a pitcher. His mom, Tonija, remembers going to his games with a tally counter in order to track his pitches. Once he reached his max, typically around 80 pitches, she’d ensure his day was over so they could preserve his arm.
“I put all my energy and all my work into him playing baseball,” Tonija said. “I thought, I really thought, that’s where he would end up.”
Meyers’s junior year of high school, however, the football team’s starting quarterback sustained a concussion, thrusting him into action for the rest of the game. Pritchett liked what he saw — and wanted to have Meyers continue at the position for the rest of the season. But Meyers’s sights were still set on baseball.
“If the other quarterback didn’t get hurt, he would not have played,” Tonija recalled. “Kobi called me one day and said, ‘Mom, the coach is going call you and ask you if I can play football. Just tell him no.’ I was like, ‘I’m not telling him no, you tell him no.’ ”
Despite his initial hesitation, Meyers decided to give quarterback a try — and put up impressive numbers. Even when the starter, an All-State senior, was ready to return, Pritchett stuck with Meyers. Arabia Mountain finished the season with a 7-3 record, its first winning season in school history.
In five starts, Meyers completed 68 of 126 passing attempts (54.0 percent) for 1,147 yards and 13 touchdowns with four interceptions. He also ran for 120 yards and three more scores.
With each win, Pritchett said he could see Meyers start to believe in himself.
“His confidence started to grow,” he said. “He could make any throw. He had the strongest arm I have ever seen. He could throw the ball 80 yards, flat-footed. He could really throw.”
Meyers returned as the starter his senior year. Although the team wasn’t very good, turning in a 4-6 record, he continued to post noteworthy individual numbers. As a senior, he completed 110 of his 170 pass attempts (64.7 percent) for 1,834 yards and 23 touchdowns.
His performances earned him an invite to the regionals of Elite 11, an event for the premier high school quarterbacks across the country. Even though he didn’t advance beyond the initial rounds, quarterback guru Tony Ballard took a liking to him.
“He had an arm, but most kids who come in at that level with a strong arm really can’t control it,” Ballard said. “They might be able to throw this or throw that, but when you need them to hone in on ball placement or take some temperature off the ball, those are things he was able to do.”
Ballard kept in touch with Meyers, and began to work with him on the nuances of the position.
“Why do you want to use your legs to throw?” Ballard said. “What does a wide base consist of? Why do we ask for a quick-foot strike to speed up the delivery to fire your hips? Things like that. He didn’t know those things because he didn’t really have that type of teaching. He was just a kid that was naturally talented.”
Added Tonija: “From there, Kobi was like, ‘I think I like this quarterback thing.’ ”
Switch to receiver
Getting the attention of colleges wasn’t easy. Meyers had received some mid-major offers and initially committed to Kent State, where he could play both baseball and football.
“We were just trying to get him recruited and get his name out there because people around here knew him, but nobody else really knew him,” Pritchett said.
Late in the process, six schools visited Arabia Mountain to watch Meyers throw — and he secured offers from Florida, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest. Meyers opted to attend NC State because the school would allow him to play both baseball and football, in addition to pursuing a pre-med career path.
Things didn’t exactly go according to plan, however. Quarterback Ryan Finley, now on the Cincinnati Bengals, transferred to NC State from Boise State, and the program planned to make him the starter.
Meyers also had suffered a knee injury that forced him to redshirt his freshman season. When he returned the following year, the coaching staff wanted to find another opportunity for him to get onto the field. Given Meyers’s athleticism, along with injuries to the team’s receiving corps, coach Dave Doeren talked to him about transitioning to wide receiver.
“Quarterbacks generally want to be a quarterback,” Doeren said. “Sometimes that’s hard to give that up.”
But his experience as quarterback still ended up proving to be a valuable experience. NC State’s wide receivers coach George McDonald saw several skills translate to the new position.
“He understands what holes the quarterback is trying to get the ball to, and just has a really good understanding of timing of routes and when he needs to be open and how he needs to set the angles for the quarterback to deliver the ball,” McDonald said.
With each year, Meyers’s production increased. As a redshirt freshman, he caught 13 passes for 158 yards. The following year, he caught 63 passes for 727 yards and five touchdowns. His final season before declaring for the NFL draft, he broke Torry Holt’s single-season reception record at NC State with 92 catches for 1,047 yards and four touchdowns.
“Once he started having success, he really bought into the little things of being a wide receiver, and that just unlocked his abilities,” McDonald said.
During the games, when the defense was on the field, McDonald said Meyers would always be talking to Finley about potential adjustments they could make on the next series. Because Meyers was already familiar with the quarterback terminology, the two were able to quickly get on the same page.
That attentiveness carried over to the film room.
“He’s always listening, and he’s always watching and observing,” McDonald said. “Sometimes he looked like he’s not paying attention, but he could regurgitate everything you said in an hour meeting. He’s really a cerebral person that understands the value of education.”
Even though Meyers had a smaller frame than most — Doeren estimates he gained 40 pounds during his college tenure to just reach 200 pounds — McDonald believes his experience as a passer also gave him an edge when playing through contact.
“As a quarterback, you’re going to take hits, you’re going to take blind-sided shots, and I think he’s used to being hit,” McDonald said. “That’s what makes him different. He knows how not to take a full-on hit, where he can manipulate his body to protect the throw and also protect himself.”
As his stardom rose, Meyers stayed even-keeled. But those around him emphasize just because he’s a mellow guy doesn’t mean he’s not a fierce competitor.
“I think everything is more internal for him,” McDonald said “I think everything just kind of boils underneath the surface. Outside, he always looks calm and collected, but, inside, he’s always trying to strive to be the best at whatever it is he’s doing.”
Under the radar
Meyers didn’t get selected in the 2019 NFL Draft, though he didn’t stay available for long because the Patriots signed him to an undrafted free agent contract.
“He might have been the first free agent signed that year,” Doeren said. “Because it was fast.”
While battling for a roster spot that summer, Meyers was roommates with a fellow undrafted rookie in Gunner Olszewski, who was acclimating to wide receiver after playing defensive back in college. The two bonded over their shared experience, learning a new playbook together.
“That’s my boy,” Olszewski said. “We just talked about everything under the blue moon. We talked about football all day and talked about how he remembers stuff, because obviously he got a hold of it a lot quicker than I did.”
When Meyers would call his mom, Tonija would say, “Kobi, this is your competition. Why are you helping? Why are you helping him learn the plays?” To which Meyers would respond, “Mom, everybody deserves a fair shot. Just because they know the plays doesn’t mean they’re going to outplay me.”
Both Meyers and Olszewski ended up making the team.
“Every level of my career has been the same story,” Meyers said. “I never start out on top. I wasn’t a five-star [recruit]; I didn’t go to high school as a football player. It was just a lot of adversity I had to work through and it taught me a lot of things on the way up.
“I was always pretty confident, I knew what I could do, I knew I just had to be patient and wait on my opportunity, because if I sat there and got down about it or cried about it I wouldn’t be ready when that chance came.”
Throughout his athletic career, Tonija would always tell her son, “A delay is never a denial,” a motto he’s seemingly embraced.
As Meyers continues to work on beating different coverages and man techniques, one thing is overwhelmingly clear from those who have coached him: He’s just getting started.
“He was just doing stuff in college on pure talent,” McDonald said. “I think Jakobi is still growing and still learning and still developing, where he still has a lot more that he’s going to be able to do and show. If you track his history, when he gets an opportunity, he’s usually going to be pretty successful.”
Added Doeren: “He’s always been a guy that developed later than other people, so I would say his ceiling is probably still not touched.”
After New England’s big win over the Baltimore Ravens last week, Meyers called his mother, as he does after every game. He had thrown a dazzling 24-yard touchdown pass to Rex Burkhead, and caught five passes, including a key fourth-quarter third-down conversion.
“Mom, this is the most fun I’ve ever had,” he told her.
Tonija’s eyes welled.
“It’s a tear-jerker,” she said. “He waited so long. It just did something to me. I know how hard it’s been. You want to play so badly, and you don’t get your opportunity. It just warmed my heart.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.