Is Coby Fleener Poised for a Breakout Year?
One of the biggest storylines as we approach the 2013 season is Coby Fleener's potential.
Drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft, the former Stanford Cardinal came into 2012 with a lot of expectations. Fleener wasn't the most productive tight end in the country during his senior season, but it was impressive nonetheless, finishing fourth among TEs with 667 receiving yards.
When he came to Indianapolis however, Fleener was outperformed by fellow rookie Dwayne Allen, and despite catching 26 passes for 281 yards, would be labeled as a disappointment by most fans. Fleener missed four games due to a shoulder injury, as well as landing on the injury report for an unofficial concussion and ankle injury later in the season.
But even when he was healthy, Fleener looked uncomfortable and lacked fluidity on the field. Allen was the more impressive blocker and receiver via the eye test, and Fleener quickly took a back seat to his fellow rookie.
But heading into the season, Fleener is the one that everyone is talking about, predicting that he'll stick out with a noticeable year just as much as Allen did in 2012.
The scene is set for Fleener to catch people's eye in 2013. Will he fulfill expectations though, or fall short once again?
What happened in 2012?
To figure out what happened last season, we need to go back to Fleener's senior season at Stanford.
Yes, Fleener gained more than 600 yards in 2011. Even more impressive, however, was the way that Fleener accumulated those yards. Fleener caught just 34 passes in 2011, 18th among tight ends, meaning he averaged an astounding 19.6 yards per catch, the seventh highest average in the country among all players.
Coming into Indianapolis for his rookie year, the assumption was that Fleener would jump right back into a similar role. The Colts would use Fleener down the field and over the middle to stretch the field and he'd use his 4.45 speed to beat linebackers in coverage. It all made too much sense.
But, once Fleener was on the field, things played out differently.
Of his 50 targets in 2012, Fleener was targeted on short passes (less than 10 yards) 30 times, or 60 percent of the time. He finished with a mediocre 10.6 yards per reception, 33rd among 62 qualifying tight ends (subscription required) and a full yard behind Dwayne Allen's 11.6.
The Colts seemed to rarely use Fleener on long routes down the seam, instead running him out to the flat or on shallow crossing routes over the middle. Corralling him to these areas kept him from using his biggest asset: speed and athleticism. Fleener isn't particularly quick, but has great top-end speed, so having him run short routes kept him from getting open against quicker linebackers.
But Fleener's poor season wasn't just the fault of the coaching staff.
Fleener finished the season with a below-average drop rate, according to Pro Football Focus. Fleener's drop rate of 10.34 ranked 22nd among 37 qualifying tight ends, adding to the Colts' poor rate among their receivers.
Fleener isn't a particularly good route runner, his success lies in his ability to beat defenses with his size and straight-line speed. If he's dropping passes when he is open, he becomes a liability rather than an asset.
Of course, we can't talk about the 2012 season without bringing up Fleener's shoulder injury.
Before dislocating his shoulder against Tennessee in Week 8, Fleener was averaging three catches and 32 yards per game. Those numbers extrapolated over a 16-game season would have given him 48 catches and more than 500 yards, which would have been one of the best seasons by a rookie tight end since 2000.
The dramatic drop off after the injury is partially because of Dwayne Allen's emergence, but you have to wonder if the injury bothered Fleener down the stretch.
What to expect in 2013
First and foremost, the offensive coordinator change should help Fleener immensely. Fleener thrived under Pep Hamilton at Stanford in 2011, and Hamilton knows how to use him.
The Colts know that they need to get Fleener into open space more often to fully take advantage of his talents in 2013. Ryan Grigson told media members as much in March, and Dan Pompei of National Football Post says that he's heard similar things from the Colts' organization:
And they also want to use second year tight end Coby Fleener more as a vertical threat down the seam. With his speed and size, Fleener should be able to take advantage of man to man matchups as well as zone coverages.
Getting Fleener into man-to-man matchups with linebackers running down field is the key, as the Colts previewed during their comeback win against Detroit. Coby Fleener gets matched up with linebacker DeAndre Levy, runs a little out-and-up, and gets a step on Levy.
Fleener's speed gets him the step on the defender, leading to the throw by Luck. Even though the throw is slightly under-thrown, Fleener uses his size and leaping ability to rise over the linebacker and get the catch as the safety reaches the scene too late.
It's those kind of matchups that the Colts will look to isolate Fleener in during his sophomore season, and his height and size should be used in the red zone in the upcoming season, giving the Colts a red zone threat they lacked in 2012.
With Pagano confirming that Fleener's role will expand, Fleener should have the breakout season that we all expect. Even if he doesn't have 50 catches, his impact on the game should be far greater.
Fleener won't have the excuse of being misused under Hamilton. He won't have the excuse of learning a new offense, being one of the former Cardinal players to know Hamilton's vocabulary and tendencies extremely well.
If he also doesn't have to deal with injury as he did last season, he should have the breakout season we all expect. If he avoids the drops that he had last season, he could be one of Luck's favorite targets.
No matter what the case, Fleener certainly should have the opportunity to become one of the Colts' premier offensive weapons.
The only question left is: Will he take advantage of it?
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