Indianapolis Colts: Analyzing Unique Experiment with Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener

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Indianapolis Colts: Analyzing Unique Experiment with Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener
Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener begin an experiment unlike any other in NFL history. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Without even knowing it, the Indianapolis Colts started a new experiment when they drafted Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener with their first two picks in the 2012 NFL draft.

To the naked eye, the Colts appeared to have picked the top prospect at quarterback and tight end from the draft, and they just so happened to be college teammates.

But when you dig through the annals of NFL history, you will find that this type of pairing is remarkably rare, and the Colts offer the most unique case study of them all.

Using data from Pro-Football-Reference.com, I found the Colts are the first team in NFL history to use their first- and second-round picks to draft a quarterback and receiver (wideout, tight end, etc.) from the same college.

It has to be a rare occurrence due to the difficulty of finding a quarterback and receiver each worthy of a draft pick, having them declare for draft eligibility at the same time and the opportunity to select each in the draft. It is even harder when each is the top prospect at his position.

We have some considerable time before we know if the Colts were wise, but we can always go back and look at the history of other reunion attempts.

 

The Historical Comparisons

Based on past history, Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener are not far from stepping on the field together one time and already being the best NCAA-to-NFL quarterback/receiver pair ever.

The history is that bad, and it is even more difficult to pin down. Through a series of searches using Pro-Football-Reference’s Draft Finder, I was able to compile databases for quarterbacks, tight ends and wide receivers taken in the draft.

Some of the problems with this include the classification of older receivers as flankers and split ends, or simply “ends,” and the fact that some players transferred from one college to another.

Also, a player like Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch is listed as a tight end on the Draft History section at NFL.com, yet we know he was a wide receiver. The tight end position usually goes back to the beginning of the 1960s, starting with Mike Ditka’s era.

Do not even get me started on two-way players and non-traditional quarterbacks who ruled the league before the 1950s. It is easy to get nauseous working through that era.

Finally, I took what I had as databases and ran queries to get the following results. Luck-Fleener is the eighth quarterback-tight end duo (listed in gray below) to go from being college teammates to being drafted by the same NFL team.

Overall, there are 33 cases, with the other 25 being quarterbacks/wide receiver duos (or close to it). Six of the last eight are quarterback/tight end. The “Pick” represents the round and selection number the player was drafted at.

Drafted QB/Receiver pairings from the same college

Out of the previous 32 cases, only six actually saw both the quarterback and receiver play for the team that drafted them.

 

1955 Chicago Cardinals

Dave Leggett played in four games and only had one incomplete pass. Dick Brubaker played 13 games for Chicago and had six receptions. Obviously, none came from his Ohio State teammate Leggett.

 

1966 Atlanta Falcons

Steve Sloan, a backup to Joe Namath at Alabama, made one start at quarterback and had 31 attempts in his career. Receiver Tommy Tolleson played in eight games in 1966 but never had a reception.

 

1967 Houston Oilers

Bob Davis made six starts in Houston, but he was abysmal with a 31.4 passer rating on 147 attempts. His Virginia teammate Ed Carrington played 15 games for the Oilers but never had a reception.

 

1971 Atlanta Falcons

This is getting out of hand. Though receiver Wes Chesson had 40 receptions with the team, quarterback Leo Hart never threw any of them, as the Duke alum only had one incomplete pass in his one game as a Falcon.

 

1974 New Orleans Saints

Finally, we have proof of a pro completion between one of these pairs. Michigan’s Paul Seal was taken in the second round, and Larry Cipa went in the 15th round. He was a long shot, but Cipa made two starts for the team and completed 34 of 92 passes in his career. Yes, that is only 37.0 percent, but we know at least one completion went from Cipa to Seal in the NFL. There is a chance it was only three receptions total, but at least it was something.

 

1979 Kansas City Chiefs

In almost embarrassing fashion, the gold standard of a drafted college quarterback/receiver duo belongs to Clemson’s Steve Fuller and wide receiver Stan Rome. They each played four seasons in Kansas City, and Rome had 22 receptions for 286 yards and one touchdown.

You can break it down and see that at least three of those receptions were thrown by a different quarterback, so we are talking 20 receptions really—that is all Luck-to-Fleener needs to beat to take over as the “best ever” in this group.

When I said the two Colts could just take the field once and be the best, I was mostly serious. Now you see why.

 

In terms of draft value, the closest example to Luck and Fleener was actually the first way back in 1947. The Green Bay Packers used the No. 6 pick on UCLA quarterback Ernie Case, but he agreed to play in the AAFC for Baltimore and retired after one season. The Packers’ next pick was UCLA receiver Burr Baldwin, but he also went to the AAFC, playing three years with the Los Angeles Dons. So Case and Baldwin never played together after UCLA.

Joe Namath and Ray Ogden each played in the NFL, but Namath of course started in the AFL after being drafted No. 1 by the New York Jets. The Cardinals also used the No. 12 pick on him in 1965. Who can blame Namath for taking the $427,000 offer from New York?

Some other notes about these teams on the list:

  • The 1976 New York Jets did something nice when they took N.C. State brothers Don Buckey and Dave Buckey with the 326th and 327th picks in the draft. Don, the receiver, made the team, but Dave was cut.
  • Pat Barnes-Tony Gonzalez is actually one of the closest examples to Luck and Fleener, though Barnes only played in one NFL game, and that was with the 1999 San Francisco 49ers.
  • In 1956 and 1957, the Pittsburgh Steelers picked four players from the University of Pittsburgh in each draft. You could almost see “The Chief” smoking away, telling the team to “just get some local guys and hurry this thing up!”
  • The 1956 Chicago Cardinals used back-to-back picks in rounds 16 and 17 on Navy players: quarterback George Welsh and end Ron Beagle. Neither played a game in the NFL.
  • The 1948-49 Chicago Bears selected two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Bobby Layne and George Blanda, but they got them college teammate receivers with bad nicknames like Ralph “Peppy” Blount and Wally “Wah-Wah” Jones. They also traded Layne at his request after one season.

 

The Other Methods of Reuniting College Teammates

To this point, all the data was for the same draft year in which a team selected a quarterback and receiver from the same school. Though it would be different than what the Colts are trying with Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener, there are other methods to go about reuniting such a pair in the NFL.

You could have a situation where a quarterback comes out before or after his receiver in the draft and the same team chooses to take that player as well. But the easier route is free agency. These are also much more difficult to research, so only a few examples will be used.

Rex Grossman reunited with receiver Jabar Gaffney in Washington last season. The two last played together at Florida in 2001, when Grossman was dominant (34 TD, 9.86 YPA) in Steve Spurrier’s offense with Gaffney, Reche Caldwell and Taylor Jacobs as his main receivers. In 2011, Gaffney had a career-high 947 receiving yards with Grossman back as his quarterback. Coincidence? Probably.

Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy at Ohio State throwing to the likes of Ted Ginn Jr. Both played for San Francisco in 2010, though Smith was only 2-of-11 for 18 yards on passes intended for Ginn.

Some thought Earl Bennett pairing up with Jay Cutler again would help the careers of each in Chicago in 2009. The two only played one year at Vanderbilt together, but Bennett was the leading receiver with 79 receptions for 876 yards. Bennett had 717 yards for the Bears in 2009, but his numbers have fallen the last two seasons.

The past success and familiarity may have an expiration date. David Terrell was productive at Michigan with Tom Brady as his quarterback, but as the No. 8 pick in the 2001 draft, Terrell was a bust for the Bears. He tried to make New England’s roster in 2005, with some reporting that Brady urged for the move to happen. However, Terrell never made the team and played one more game in his career.

Instead of attempting to rejuvenate an old veteran, a team could always bring in a young, undrafted free agent receiver. This is actually what the Colts have done with wide receiver Griff Whalen, who also played at Stanford with Luck and Fleener.

It is unclear how much of a shot Whalen has to make the 53-man roster. He is in a similar position to Gerell Robinson, who played at Arizona State with rookie quarterback Brock Osweiler. The duo reunites in Denver. Of course, Peyton Manning is the starting quarterback in Denver now, but could the future be more of Osweiler to Robinson? Let’s put a big wad of money on “no” to that one.

Perhaps part of the reason not many of these cases happen is because a lot of the successful quarterbacks do not play with great college talent at the receiver position, which is why they are drafted so high. The quarterback stands out more than the players they are throwing to.

Someone like Ken Dorsey played with essentially an NFL team in Miami, so when all of his teammates are going high in the draft, it is no wonder he falls to the seventh round and goes on to an uneventful career.

 

Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener’s Unique Opportunity

Though the past standard is low for this experiment, clearly no team has ever given it this kind of effort to work. The expectations will be high on these players, and that is only because of how well they worked in college.

Some may be surprised to know that Fleener only had 96 receptions for 1,543 yards in four years at Stanford. They were very much a running team, as even Luck’s career high in passing yards was 3,517 last season (404 attempts). Stanford averaged around 40 rushing attempts per game during Fleener’s career.

Colts fans should not worry, as even Dallas Clark only had two seasons of tight end at Iowa (1,251 yards), and Marcus Pollard spent most of his time playing basketball in college. What matters is whether or not the receiver was effective with his opportunities.

Luck and Fleener were very efficient, connecting on 70.1 percent of their targets. That does not include the two-point conversion Fleener caught in triple overtime against USC last season. Of his 82 completions from Luck, only three were for no gain or a loss of yards.

Fleener had 16 games at Stanford where he caught every pass Luck threw to him that day. In 2010, after having no catches on just two targets in consecutive games, Fleener returned in the Orange Bowl against Virginia Tech to have the best game of his career. He caught all six targets for 173 yards and three touchdowns as Stanford cruised to a 40-12 victory.

The problem with college play-by-play data is that it ignores who the intended receiver was on interceptions, so do not take these numbers for the true volume of Luck’s passing to Fleener, but it is a good showing of efficiency nonetheless. Rating is based on the NFL's passer rating formula.

Bruce Arians comes over from Pittsburgh as the new offensive coordinator for the Colts. While Fleener is not the blocker that Heath Miller is, he can be just as good of a receiver, if not better. Miller has caught 71.5 percent of his targets in the NFL. Arians should use Fleener often, especially in the red zone, as evidenced by his high rate of touchdowns.

Whatever experiences these two rookies have, they will go through them together. Will the familiarity throwing to each other give them an advantage early in their careers? That remains to be seen. It should not hurt, though.

Many marriages by young couples fail, but Luck and Fleener have an opportunity to go through all the growing pains and the rewards together in Indianapolis. Will they be as good as Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark were? It's highly unlikely, but most crumble against those standards.

The Colts have a chance to show that their plan was a very smart way of rebuilding a franchise. It may have taken some luck to put together, but they know it will take a lot of Luck to pull off.

 

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