Along with third-round pick Dwayne Allen, Fleener was supposed to anchor a new era of weapons for Luck. During his rookie year, Fleener struggled with drops and injuries, the two biggest detractors to an otherwise decent rookie season.
Coming into his sophomore season, however, Fleener has been hyped as much as any other Colt. He's in a better system for his talents with offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. That and a year of growth (and full health) were supposed to be keys in his development.
After a strong training camp, Fleener's drops were back in the preseason, leading to a largely negative contingent of fans to crawl out of the woodwork, predicting a poor season and "bust" label for the former Cardinal.
Those fans weren't appeased by Fleener's lack of production on Sunday against the Raiders. Even while playing 42 snaps, Fleener managed just one catch for seven yards, and simply wasn't involved in the offense from a passing standpoint.
The question after one game is: Why is Fleener not involved?
Is it a scheme problem, a problem with Fleener's route-running or is Andrew Luck ignoring him? To answer that, we go to NFL Game Rewind's coaches' film.
For this piece I tracked each of Fleener's routes on passing plays, not counting screens for other players, where he was never a real option in the play. I tracked a few different things, including where he lined up and the type and depth of his routes.
A few broad takeaways from the charting:
- Flexibility is a staple of Pep Hamilton's offense, hence the variations in position that Fleener lined up as during Sunday's win. I count five different base positions, including wideout, slot, flanker, H-back and tight end.
- Some variations are present in the types of routes that Fleener ran, but shallow crossing routes still are very popular. More on this in a bit.
Short, Quick Routes: Not a Strength for Fleener
One huge reason why Fleener didn't get involved was his propensity to run short routes, such as crossing routes, shallow in/out routes and routes out to the flat.
While I like to see Andrew Luck having a safety valve, something that was missing too often last year, Coby Fleener isn't the best option.
In order to be consistently successful running these kinds of routes, a player needs to have one of two traits:
- Quickness and sharp route-running, allowing for separation from defenders in a short amount of time
- Strength and physicality, allowing a player to be successful when catching the ball in traffic
Unfortunately, neither of these are strengths for Fleener. While he's very athletic for a tight end, he's more fast than he is quick, and his route-running still needs work.
Take this play for example. Watch Fleener (on the right side of the offensive line) run a 10-yard "in" route.
His break is curved around, not a sharp cut like it should be. Fleener needs to shorten his steps there and make a more distinct cut, rather than round it off, making the break longer than it should be—thus easier to defend.
Then there's the lack of physicality.
Fleener has height (6'6") and leaping ability, but he doesn't use either very well. On short routes he should be using his size to get extra separation from defenders and use his body to shield the defender from the catch.
Unfortunately, Fleener does neither of those things very well, so constantly using him on short routes isn't very productive. Opposing linebackers are quick enough to stay with him in small spaces and generally are more physical. Dwayne Allen, on the other hand, combines physical strength with surprising quickness, and is a better fit for such a role.
Focusing on Fleener not a Priority for Luck
While Fleener's role as a safety valve was lacking, he was used down the seam and on the outside a few times and managed to get open on numerous plays. Unfortunately, Luck simply wasn't focusing on Fleener on these plays, and they go unnoticed on live television.
I counted nine plays where Fleener was open, and four where it was a noticeable mistake by Andrew Luck to not throw to him.
First was this play in the second quarter, as the Colts tried to gain a two-score lead heading into halftime. On first down, Luck throws to Wayne on a shallow crossing route but has Fleener breaking on a seam route behind the linebackers.
It still counts as a completion for Luck, but a two-yard gain in the middle of the field in a two-minute drive is useless.
The second play was the very next snap, where Luck has Fleener wide open in the flat but doesn't release the ball and is sacked, effectively killing the Colts' chances at a scoring drive.
While Andrew Luck attempts to take a shot down the field on this next play, something that I really appreciate, you have to be smart about taking your shots.
You can see above that trying to fit the ball in between the bracketed safety and linebacker was going to be a challenge, whereas Fleener doesn't have a defender anywhere near him on his five-yard in route.
Finally, you have the final play, the second-to-last offensive play for Indianapolis. Luck has both wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and Fleener open, but Fleener is open down the field for a 15-yard gain (or more), while Hilton is just three yards past the line of scrimmage.
It ended fine, with Luck running in the game-winning touchdown on the next play, but imagine if the Colts had failed to convert the third down. This play would have been a key failure in the Colts' inability to score.
Now, it's important to note that every receiver has plays that the quarterback misses. But in an offense that is known to be centered around the tight end, the amount of attention that Luck gives Fleener—or lack thereof—is very noticeable.
Perhaps it's a trust issue, after Fleener's inconsistent route-running and drops wore Luck down to a point where he doesn't look to Fleener first any longer. Perhaps it was an offensive scheme for the Oakland game.
The fact is that Fleener isn't a perfect player, but the Colts need to improve both their role for him in this offense as well as their focus on him on individual plays. It still doesn't seem far-fetched that he can be a devastating weapon, but he must get a few looks first.
If he doesn't, he may as well buy a roll of stamps for the next game and mail it in.
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