Is Coby Fleener Going to Be This Season's Biggest Breakout Star?

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IAugust 1, 2013

Dec. 2, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener (80) catches a pass for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

With his health restored and a new, tight end-friendly offensive coordinator in town, Coby Fleener of the Indianapolis Colts has all the makings of a breakout star for the 2013 NFL season.

In fact, by season's end, it might be fair to compare Fleener's game to that of Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots' All-Pro tight end. The Colts' 6'6", 252-pound tight end with receiver-like movement skills has a chance to be that good.

Seemingly every development this offseason has pointed to a breakout season for Fleener. 

Shortly after former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians landed a head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals in January, the Colts jumped on the opportunity to hire Pep Hamilton, who coached both Fleener and quarterback Andrew Luck while at Stanford. 

While Arians handled himself well as the Colts offensive coordinator in 2012, his offense wasn't predicated around the tight end position. Hamilton, on the other hand, figures to feature his combo tight ends much more frequently in the passing game. 

According to Pro Football Focus, Fleener ran just 291 routes over his 501 total snaps in 2012. Arians asked Fleener to block on his other 210 snaps, which isn't the best ratio for a tight end known more for his receiving ability.

In fact, the second-round tight end received just 23 total routes from the slot as a rookie. Expect that number to rise sharply as Hamilton and the Colts find new ways to find the best mismatches for Fleener, who is too big for most safeties and cornerbacks and too fast (4.45-4.5-second 40-yard dash, per Pro Football Talk) for linebackers. 

Also, considering the Stanford connection, there's likely no offensive coordinator on the planet who knows how to use Fleener better than Hamilton. During his senior season, in which Hamilton captained Stanford's offense as the playcaller, Fleener caught 34 passes for 667 yards and 10 touchdowns and was one of college football's most difficult tight end matchups. 

Like so many of the NFL's best tight ends, Fleener should be a handful as a slot receiver while also possessing the body and athleticism needed to dominate in the red zone. 

Hamilton recently gave rave reviews regarding Fleener's offseason and NFL progression, per the Indianapolis Star

"Probably having the most productive camp, including his time at Stanford, that I’ve seen," Hamilton said. "In the time that I’ve been around Coby, he’s a lot more explosive and confident right now and he’s making plays that big-time NFL players tend to make.”

Getting his shoulder healthy could be a top reason why Fleener is taking big strides in his second NFL offseason. 

After catching 21 passes through his first six and half games in 2012, Fleener suffered a partially dislocated shoulder in Week 8 and end up missing Weeks 9-13. Once he returned, he caught just five passes over the last five regular-season games as the shoulder continued to give him problems. 

Overall, Fleener finished his rookie campaign with a disappointing stat line of 26 catches for 281 yards and two touchdowns.

His shoulder problem now in the rear-view mirror, Fleener can focus on making the jump that so many of the game's top tight ends made during their second NFL season. 

Four prime examples come to mind. 

Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers caught just 24 passes during his rookie season of 2003, but came back in 2004 with 81 receptions for 964 yards and 13 scores. 

Jimmy Graham hauled in a pedestrian 31 passes for 356 yards for the New Orleans Saints as a 2010 rookie, but his sophomore season included 99 catches for 1,310 yards and 10 touchdowns. 

Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph more than doubled his receptions in Year 2 (53) from his rookie season (26), while also catching three times as many touchdowns (nine in 2012; three in '11). 

Even the aforementioned Gronkowski, who exploded for 90 catches, 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns during his second season, only produced 42 receptions and 546 yards as a first-year player in 2010. 

Nothing about these numbers guarantees Fleener will make a big jump in 2013, but there does appear to be a precedent for big, athletic tight ends following up average rookie years with explosive second seasons. Learning the nuances of the position at the NFL level might be one reason why these type of tight ends don't post big numbers in Year 1 but dominate soon after.

Fleener would seem to have all the ingredients necessary for a similar sophomore jump.

His quarterback is on the verge of superstardom, the offense now better incorporates the tight end position and there should be plenty of receiving talent around him. Add in a clean bill of health and a playbook he's familiar with, and Fleener has an real opportunity to trump even his head coach's expectations. 

"What did he have 20-, 30-some catches last year? That should double," coach Chuck Pagano told George Bremer of the Herald Bulletin

We'll do the math for Pagano; doubling Fleener's numbers from 2012 would create a still realistic stat line of 52 catches for 562 yards and four scores. 

But given all the factors going for Fleener ahead of 2013, there's really no reason why his numbers can't include 800 or more receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns.

A clear breakout candidate, Fleener appears well on his to way to climbing up the NFL's tight end hierarchy this season. 


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