Can Coby Fleener Be the Breakout Tight End of 2016?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystJune 25, 2016

New Orleans Saints tight end Coby Fleener (82) goes through drills during NFL football practice in Metairie, La., Thursday, June 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

A word comes to mind when you think about New Orleans Saints tight end Coby Fleener and his body of NFL work so far. It’s not necessarily a bad word in this context, because despite the negative sting, the implication is there are greater heights still to be achieved.

That word? Disappointing.

Fleener’s four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts were often disappointing because he’d show flashes of natural skill. But the 27-year-old teased when he didn’t use all of the items in his football toolbox at the same time for a prolonged stretch. He couldn't elevate himself far enough above tight end platoon mate Dwayne Allen.

But of course, if we’re disappointed by three straight 50-plus-catch seasons and a single-year high of 774 receiving yards (2014), then attaching that word to Fleener becomes a backhanded compliment.

Even with his early-career sputtering, there’s so much more that can be squeezed out of the talent platter he offers. The assumption and/or hope is that he needs to be plugged into the right offense, with the right quarterback.

That offense is the one run by the New Orleans Saints. And the quarterback is Drew Brees.

Fleener only narrowly missed being a first-round pick in 2012 and came off the board in the opening minutes of Day 2 that year at 34th overall. Being the first tight end selected and occupying a draft slot that high comes with the expectation he’ll reach a lofty production ceiling and do it quickly.

A few elements held him back: the presence of Allen, his sometimes less than smooth hands and, more recently, a 2015 season that can be extracted from your memories of Fleener and then shot into space. Life without quarterback Andrew Luck for nearly half of the season wasn’t pleasant for any of the Colts’ skill-position players.

One of those issues (Luck’s injury) was out of Fleener’s control. To some extent, Allen sucking back a chunk of his targets was, too, though the former Stanford Cardinal standout could have forced his way into an even larger role.

Or maybe instead he did that and was playing like a tight end ready to break free because of his 6'6", 251-pound size and ability to separate up the seam with ease. He just wasn’t getting the ball enough, and now it sounds like a gushing Brees is ready to fix that problem.

"We watched a lot of film on him last year, just because we played in the AFC South," Brees said recently during Saints minicamp, per Christopher Dabe of the Times-Picayune.

"It felt like every time we turned on the film to watch an opponent that we were about to play, I'm watching Colts film or Fleener film. It was like, 'Man, this guy has an uncanny ability to separate.' He's always open. There's always a place to throw the ball where he can get it."

Fleener automatically ascended to the top of the Saints’ tight end depth chart after he became their free-agency splash back in March, signing a five-year deal worth $36 million. That made him Brees’ new and latest large target at the position with a wide catch radius. The nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback certainly sounds like a guy who’s ready to spoon-feed footballs to Fleener.

It’s understandable to have healthy skepticism about just how much Fleener’s workload will increase and how much he should be trusted. Sigmund Bloom from FootballGuys.com raised an eyebrow to both, especially after it became clear that second-round rookie wide receiver Michael Thomas will likely become the new Marques Colston:

I’ll dive into the potential trust problems with the Saints' new quarterback-tight end marriage in just a minute. There is indeed some looming grayness, and as we all know, trust and being comfortable enough to tell your partner they snore too much are the foundations of any marriage.

But first it’s important to establish a clear fact of passing-game life in New Orleans: Fleener will get worn out as a target, just like every tight end before him.

The Saints view high-volume passing the same way humans look at eating food or drinking water: It’s essential for their survival.

They’re consistently among the league leaders in pass attempts and have been out of the top three in that category just once over the past six seasons (2013, when they still ranked fourth with 651 attempts). That leads to a lot of opportunities for everyone, from the pass-catching running backs New Orleans has trotted out over the years to the field-stretchers, like wide receiver Willie Snead.

And there’s been no shortage of tight end targets. Consider how often former Saints tight end Jimmy Graham saw a spiral whirling in his direction.

Most targeted tight ends between 2010 and 2014
Tight endTargets
Jason Witten697
Jimmy Graham669
Greg Olsen621
Rob Gronkowski579
Antonio Gates530
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

During his time with the Saints (five seasons between 2010 and 2014), Graham was the league’s second most targeted tight end. He finished behind only the Dallas Cowboys’ Jason Witten and was one of only three tight ends targeted 600-plus times.

Graham's talent placed him in a tier high above most of his position peers, and he's still there when healthy. No sane-minded individual will call Fleener a Graham clone. The purpose here is to hammer home something that becomes glaringly obvious as the numbers keep rolling out: The Saints ride their tight ends hard and know a thing or three about using them well.

If Graham is too much of a marquee name for you, then please recall the case of a 35-year-old Benjamin Watson.

At that not-so-ripe football age, Watson quickly took giant steps away from Graham’s shadow after New Orleans traded him to the Seattle Seahawks. The Saints moved ahead with their regular weekly tight end feedings as if nothing changed at all. In his 12th NFL season, Watson finished with 110 targets for 74 receptions and 825 receiving yards, both single-year highs.

Even more remarkably, in his 153rd career game, Watson set a new single-game receiving high with his 127 yards in Week 6. He did that after catching only 20 balls the previous season while playing behind Graham.

How long did Watson’s new personal record last? Two weeks. In Week 8 against the New York Giants, he snatched nine passes for 147 yards. In those two games alone, Watson collected 274 yards. His total over two prior seasons with the Saints was 362 yards.

If a tight end of Watson’s vintage can rise that fast when given an opportunity to work more directly with Brees, then Fleener is well-positioned for immediate success. Which is a fine assumption as long as he’s not derailed by catching mitts sometimes more suited for his giant dog.

Fleener has a well-earned reputation for being an inconsistent catcher, which isn’t exactly the weakness a player wants to be carrying around when his broader title beyond tight end is pass-catcher.

Fleener finished with 183 receptions for 2,154 yards over four years with the Indianapolis Colts.
Fleener finished with 183 receptions for 2,154 yards over four years with the Indianapolis Colts.Michael Conroy/Associated Press/Associated Press

Let’s flip back to 2014 again, which was Fleener’s best season statistically on a number of fronts (including receiving yards, yards per game and touchdowns). Fleener finished with a drop rate of 10.53 that season and also ended the year tied for fourth-worst among all tight ends with six drops in total, according to Pro Football Focus.

The modern NFL tight end now has many functions, which includes being lined up in the slot or even to the outside while acting as an oversized wide receiver. But a fundamental part of every tight end’s job description is to be that inviting and trusted set of hands during times of chaos. Fleener’s drop rate at the height of his career so far suggests he’s not that guy.

However, that notion can be batted down by looking at the larger sample size Fleener provided in Indianapolis. Combined in 2013 and 2015, he saw 111 catchable balls come his way, per PFF. And he dropped just five of them. That’s a lower drop rate of 4.50.

There’s hope then that Fleener’s drop totals will normalize and settle into a comfortable, happy middle ground. And there’s reason to believe he could become a merely average football dropper, which makes those mistakes much more tolerable. They would fast become a fading memory when put alongside his production that’s rooted in deep, field-stretching speed.

To illustrate the power of what Brees raved about in his minicamp comments, we need to reflect on 2014 one more time. During that season, Fleener regularly reached and then took up residence in area codes far away from the line of scrimmage. He leaned on both his speed and large-bodied presence to separate, then secure the catch.

The result was more yards on deep throws than any other tight end by a wide margin.

Total yards by TEs on 20-plus yard throws in 2014
Tight endYards
Coby Fleener291
Jared Cook183
Delanie Walker183
Zach Ertz173
Antonio Gates161
Source: Pro Football Focus

Running deep down the seam, and doing it often, is what Fleener does best, and the Colts knew it. In 2014, a healthy Luck targeted Fleener 18 times on 20-plus-yard throws, which accounted for 20.9 percent of his overall targets.

Utilizing Fleener's mismatch-creating talent requires having an offense that has proved to elevate tight ends and a quarterback with deep pinpoint precision.

The Saints can easily check off both of those boxes. Now Fleener needs to do his part by becoming a little more trustworthy and a little less prone to mistakes at critical moments.

He'll reach another tier at his position when he does that. And if he doesn't, a disappointing career will continue.

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