The Indianapolis Colts have placed a priority on tight ends. A large portion of that emphasis comes with offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, whose offensive system utilizes the tight ends quite frequently.
But the Colts' emphasis on tight ends was clear prior to Hamilton's landing in Indianapolis. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson made it evident when he drafted Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in the second and third rounds of the 2012 NFL draft.
Sure, the Colts were never really going to use their tight ends like the previous teams used Dallas Clark, but the importance placed on them was clear.
Now going into the second year of Hamilton's career as an NFL offensive coordinator, the Colts see their most impressive tight end, Allen, return from injury and hope that Fleener continues to improve.
With a healthy group (knock on wood) and Hamilton's evolution as a coordinator, the tight ends could be more critical than ever in Indianapolis in 2014.
As a part of Bleacher Report's positional breakdowns prior to the season, today we look at each of the tight ends on the roster, how they fit among the rest and who projects to make the team in September.
The aforementioned Allen and Fleener are the top two going into the season, and that's not about to change any time soon. Who will be the top tight end between those two remains to be seen, but during last year's season-opener, the Colts played both fairly evenly up until Dwayne Allen's injury midway through the second half.
After the game's completion, Fleener had played 42 snaps to Allen's 30, but that included an 11-play drive in the fourth quarter after Allen was injured.
The two played slightly different roles in Hamilton's offense during that game, with Fleener running more deep routes mixed into his usual dumpoff mix. Fleener was also the de facto tight end in the Colts' two-minute drills.
Allen, on the other hand, was the blocker and intermediate route-runner. He almost always lined up at the end of the line; Fleener moved around a bit more, occasionally splitting out wide.
The Colts love Fleener's versatility, as they love versatility in general. Fleener gives them so many options athletically, and now head coach Chuck Pagano wants to see him blocking more as well, as noted by Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star.
Considering his 2013 campaign, that may not be such a great idea. Fleener had "green" PFF grades (plus-1.0 or more) in each category except run blocking. His run blocking grade of minus-11.3 brought his overall grade down to just 0.6 overall. Still, Fleener's flexibility in different sets allowed the Colts to give their quarterback options at the line of scrimmage.
But as much flexibility that Fleener gives the offense, having both Fleener and Allen has to compound that flexibility exponentially.
Consider this: with both Fleener and Allen active in 2013 for the Raiders game, the Colts had 39.1 yards per drive (would have been second in the league in 2013), three points per drive (first) and a drive success rate of 81.8 percent (first). The Colts ran for nearly five yards per carry, and Andrew Luck had a passer rating of 127.9.
No, you can't expect that kind of performance from the Colts offense each time around in 2014, but having both Allen and Fleener will certainly help.
Remember, Allen was Pro Football Focus' second-rated tight end in 2012 as a rookie, and his return should affect all aspects of the offense.
The Colts have a plethora of weapons they have to get on the field, and the organization of said snaps will be a chore. But make no mistake, the tight ends will continue to be featured, and Allen and Fleener will be the main beneficiaries.
The Third Wheel
Competing for the third tight end spot in 2014 are the two players who rotated among the second and third spots last season: Jack Doyle and Weslye Saunders. After being suspended for PED abuse prior to last season, Saunders was cut by the Colts, but then he was signed again by Indianapolis in Week 11.
Doyle was claimed by the Colts after final roster cuts in August last year, coming from Tennessee. What coaches call a "hammer" at the tight end position, Doyle is arguably the best blocker of the tight end group, although he did have a couple poor outings last season.
On the other side is Saunders, who is more of a receiving tight end in skill set.
You would think that Doyle would be favorite, based on his total number of snaps last season (221) as compared to Saunders' (130). But Saunders' snaps came in just seven games (18.57 per game), while Doyle's came in 15 (14.73). But, Doyle did play more or just as much as Saunders down the stretch, playing 23 playoff snaps to Saunders' 10.
It should be a close race to say the least, and the tight end chosen for the third role (assuming they don't keep four), could be a good indicator of what the Colts want to emphasize this season. With Doyle the run is more important, while Saunders brings more passing flexibility and "chunk" plays.
Another Diamond in the Rough?
Rounding out the tight end group is former Miami basketball player Erik Swoope, who is trying to make the transition to the NFL despite never playing organized football.
Swoope is reportedly a tireless worker and a fantastic athlete, who could possibly develop into a big-play threat in the mold of Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham. Of course, those are the best-case scenarios, but it never hurts to dream.
While Swoope likely won't make an impact in 2014, word is that he's already impressing coaches in Indianapolis with his work ethic and natural talent, as reported by Chris Wesseling on NFL.com. The most likely scenario for him this season includes a stint on the practice squad (much like former rugby player Daniel Adongo did in 2013), but watch for him in training camp. If he impresses, the team may not want to risk losing him on waivers.