Robert Meachem re-signs; Jon Vilma to IR

One player who helped the New Orleans Saints win Super Bowl XLIV has come back to the team. But another key piece of that championship won’t be coming back to the Saints until at least midway through this season.

The Saints on Tuesday announced that wide receiver Robert Meachem signed a one-year deal to rejoin them after he spent the 2012 campaign — the worst of his career — with the San Diego Chargers.

Not long after, the Saints said they had placed inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma on injured reserve but designated him to return. Players who are on IR and are designated to return must miss the first six weeks of practice and can’t play in games for eight weeks.

Vilma sat out all of the Saints’ preseason games and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-August, reportedly to relieve pain and swelling he was experiencing. Vilma’s absence freed up a spot on the roster for Meachem, who joins Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Kenny Stills, Nick Toon and Andy Tanner on New Orleans’ wide receiver corps.

Meachem spent his first five years in the NFL with the Saints, who selected him out of Tennessee in the first round of the 2007 draft. He sat out his rookie season with a knee injury but subsequently caught 141 passes for 2,269 yards and 23 touchdowns for New Orleans, and he added 14 catches for 184 yards and a touchdown in six postseason appearances.

His average of 16.1 yards per reception remains third-best in team history.

In 2009, when the Saints won their only NFL title, Meachem set career highs in receptions (45), receiving yards (722) and touchdowns (nine). His most memorable play that year was when he scored a 44-yard touchdown after stripping the ball from Washington safety Kareem Moore, who had intercepted quarterback Drew Brees moments earlier.

Meachem later caught a 53-yard touchdown pass from Brees, and the Saints, who were on the road, ultimately beat Washington 33-30 in overtime to begin the season 12-0.

Meachem’s accomplishments in New Orleans landed him a free-agent contract with the Chargers guaranteeing him $14 million, including a $5 million salary this year. San Diego hoped he would become Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers’ No. 1 target after his favorite wideout, Vincent Jackson, left for Tampa Bay.

However, Meachem failed to fulfill expectations in San Diego. He caught 14 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns last year. Both scores came against the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Oct. 7.

By many accounts, the chemistry between Rivers and Meachem did not improve this preseason. So the Chargers opted to release Meachem instead of putting him on the 53-man roster they unveiled Saturday, and he was summarily labeled one of the worst free-agent signings ever by San Diego.

The Saints nonetheless repatriated him, indicating that they are confident a reunion with Brees and coach Sean Payton will make Meachem productive again.

Meanwhile, David Hawthorne has been filling in for Vilma. Hawthorne, who spent his first four years in the NFL with Seattle before coming to New Orleans in 2012, missed five games last season with a hamstring injury and had 20 solo tackles. He posted eight solo tackles this preseason.

It seems Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton are slated to man the inside linebacker positions when the Saints host the Atlanta Falcons for the regular-season opener on Sept. 8.

Vilma’s knee problems have been a recurring issue. He was in his fourth year with the New York Jets, the team that drafted him, when he suffered a knee injury seven games into the 2007 campaign. He needed surgery, and the Jets placed him on IR.

New York subsequently traded Vilma to the Saints for a fourth-round draft pick. Vilma played in all but one game in his first three years with the Saints, getting in on 412 tackles and accounting for nine turnovers.

But he missed five games with knee problems in 2011. He also spent the first six weeks of 2012 on the physically unable to perform list as he recovered from offseason knee surgery.

In another transaction Tuesday, the Saints terminated the contract of linebacker Chris Chamberlain for “failure to disclose physical condition.” Chamberlain had been placed on IR on Aug. 27 for reasons Payton never discussed.

Chamberlain arrived in New Orleans in 2012 after four seasons in St. Louis but tore an anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason and was on IR for the rest of the year.