Is Coby Fleener the next big thing at TE?
The New Orleans Saints made their first big splash in free agency by signing former Indianapolis Colts TE Coby Fleener to a 5-year, $36M deal.
Fleener will immediately step in as the starting TE for the Saints who parted ways with 35 year-old veteran TE Ben Watson just a year after Watson posted career-highs with 74 receptions for 825 yards and 6 TDs on 109 targets and playing nearly 85% of the Saints offensive snaps.[the_ad id=”58837″]The Saints are looking to get younger and more athletic and signing Fleener helps achieve both of those goals. Fleener is eight years younger (28 in September) than Watson and, at this point in his career, is considerably more athletic. At 6’6”, 252 lbs. Fleener will provide Drew Brees with a bigger (6’6” vs. 6’3”), faster (4.51 forty) and equally sure-handed receiving option between the hash marks and should also provide and upgrade in the red zone.
Fleener was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft just 33 picks after his college teammate and consensus #1 pick QB Andrew Luck and for about four hours fantasy owners and Colts fans dreamed about a Luck to Fleener combo that might rival the best QB/TE combos in the game like Brees to Graham, Brady to Gronk, or Rivers to Gates and lead them to championships. Alas, just one round later, the Colts drafted Dwayne Allen and Fleener’s fantasy prospects went down the drain.
Fleener never reached his potential as a TE1 mostly due of a lack of opportunity while playing in a time share with Allen and the Colts lack of emphasis on passing to the TE. He’s been fairly productive, given the situation, and has managed to put up at least 51 receptions in each of his last three seasons. In 2014, Fleener posted his best year to date with 51 receptions, 774 yards and 8 TDs on 92 targets but suffered from bad QB play last year and regressed to 54 receptions, 491 yards and 3 TDs on just 84 targets.
New Orleans is an ideal landing spot for Fleener. Fantasy production typically follows opportunity; you need look no further than Ben Watson as proof of that assertion. Last year, the Saints first without Jimmy Graham, Watson surpassed Josh Hill on the depth chart to take over the majority of playing time and received 109 targets en route to a career season that saw him finish as the #7 overall TE in Fantasy Football. That said, Watson’s season was the worst starting TE season for the Saints since 2010 and 109 starting TE targets was the least since 2010. In fact, from 2011-2014 the Saints starting TE averaged 89 receptions, 1099 yards and 11.5 TDs on a staggering 138 targets per year. Yes, that tight end was Jimmy Graham and while I will not argue that Fleener is the athletic equal of Graham, I will argue that he is a whole lot closer than you might think (combine/pro day numbers below) and he is infinitely closer than an aging Ben Watson was in 2015.
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What Watson was lacking in athleticism last season he made up for in versatility as a blocker and was on the field for 84.8% of the Saints offensive plays last year. When comparing that with Jimmy Graham, who is a poor blocker (98th in run blocking according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) in 2015), Graham was used almost strictly as a receiving option and only averaged a snap rate of 66% from 2011-2014, but was still highly effective in the passing game as described above.[the_ad id=”61432″]Josh Hill received a lot of praise from Sean Payton prior to 2015 but failed to seize his opportunity last season with only 16 catches for 120 yards and 2 touchdowns. Hill is a very good run blocker with average to below average pass catching skills. His best season came in 2014 when he finished with 14 catches for 176 yards and 5 touchdowns. It is clear from the sizeable dollar commitment to Fleener that the Saints see Hill as nothing more than a capable second tight end with plus blocking skills.
So what does all of this tell us about what Coby Fleener will do as a Saint in 2016? Well for starters, Fleener is an underrated blocker who was ranked 20th by PFF in 2015 just five spots behind Saints blocking TE Josh Hill and 78 spots ahead of Jimmy Graham.[the_ad id=”58882″]He has high end pass-catching skills, particularly in the red zone, and will offer Brees a tall, athletic receiving option with a large catch radius that Sean Peyton will use undoubtedly move around the field to create matchup nightmares for opponents. The Saints highly value versatility so Fleener will see an increase in snap rate (expect something around 70-72%) and thus targets from his previous career high of 92 and likely from last season’s 109 targets sent Watson’s way. Barring an injury, anything less than 110 targets and 80 catches would feel like as a disappointment in 2016. It’s also not unreasonable to think that Fleener could reach or even surpass double digit TDs with the amount of focus that the Saints put on the TE position. Bottom Line, If Ben Watson was the 7th best tight end last season; Fleener has the ability to break into the Top 5 in 2016.
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Josh is graduate of Eastern Washington University and earned his JD from Widener University- School of Law. He currently works in the financial sector and also heads up the Unsourced Fantasy Collective. Josh enjoys NFL, MLB and PGA DFS as well as season long fantasy sports and has been playing fantasy sports for over 20 years.
Josh resides in the greater Seattle area with his beautiful wife and two daughters and is inexplicably a huge Miami Hurricanes fan. He enjoys following the Seahawks and Mariners and hates the NBA ever since the Sonics were stolen from the city of Seattle.