NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Indianapolis Colts

Coby Fleener struggled in the Colts offense as a rookie, is he primed for a bigger role in 2013?

It’s come as no surprise the Indianapolis Colts’ offense is once again fantasy relevant. Thanks to a big injury in 2011, the team that was once a sure lock for the playoffs in nearly every season for the past decade became terrible, then seamlessly transitioned back into postseason play once again by hitting the jackpot in 2012. This is all due to drafting a phenom quarterback in Andrew Luck at No. 1 overall of course, and with him, the Colts appear destined to ride his nearly flawless throwing mechanics into the NFL’s next generation of teams we hate because they are never out of contention when it comes to getting to the Super Bowl.

Well, what other young member of the Colts is ready to emerge as a fantasy worthy player in 2013? Luck has already proven a big factor in prolonging the career of veteran receiver Reggie Wayne, making him the most targeted receiver in the NFL  last season. The young T.Y. Hilton is emerging as a solid deep threat for the Colts as well, but what about the tight end spot?

We saw what Peyton Manning did with athletic tight end Dallas Clark in his earlier years with Indy, and later made a household name out of practice-squad guy Jacob Tamme in 2010. The Colts added two talented tight ends in the second and third rounds of the 2012 draft in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen in 2013. Plus, with Luck only getting better and new Indianapolis offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s wide-open offense, all the pieces are there. The big question is: Who is the better option?

The case for Allen

A scorned man post 2012 draft, Allen figured he’d go no later than the first round, but got drafted 64th overall (third round) by Indy which left him hot and bothered. He wasn’t even the team’s first tight end drafted in that draft. Angered because he lost millions by being picked later than expected, Allen played with the proverbial chip on his shoulder in 2012, outproducing Fleener in the process.

Allen caught 45 passes (a Colts franchise rookie record) for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns, drawing comparisons to Heath Miller and Algae Crumpler as kind of big, but slow tight ends who can catch passes.

At 6’3, 255 lbs, consider Allen has much more of a physical presence to his game than the leaner Fleener, who stands 6’6 and 252lbs and is more of an Aaron Hernandez-type.

When I compare Fleener to Hernandez however, I am certainly not comparing Allen to Rob Gronkowski, since Allen is much slower and lacks the height of Gronk.

But despite his lack of pristine physical attributes for a top fantasy tight end, Allen managed to finish 23rd overall in fantasy points last season, better than Fleener, who finished 39th. Granted, Fleener played in four less games than Allen due to injury, but Allen set a tone early on that he was a workhorse guy who was going to find a way to be a factor in the offense. Allen did just that, and put together one of the best seasons for a rookie tight end since 2000, with the seventh most receiving yards as rookie during that span. So Allen clearly has some intangible qualities going for him.

The case against Allen

Despite those intangibles, Allen really lacks the speed of the elite tight ends in the NFL. Running somewhere in the 4.8 40 range, Allen will struggle to get open and even when he is, doesn’t possess the athleticism to make tough catches when the ball is thrown low and lacks the height and leaping ability to go up and get the ball over opposing corners’ heads. His size will lend itself to sneaky touchdowns in the red zone when everybody else is covered, but don’t expect him to be coming down with over-the-shoulder one-handers.

When you take a look at all the great tight ends that have come through the league, they all possess the same certain traits. Antonio Gates (6’4, 260, runs a 4.5) Tony Gonzalez (6’5, 247, runs a 4.49), Rob Gronkowski (6’6, 265, runs a 4.6) and Jimmy Graham (6’7, 265 runs a 4.5). So despite bringing a strong physical presence, Allen has other traits working against him.

Allen benefited strongly from playing with a rookie QB in Luck who threw for a record-breaking 4,374 yards, most by a rookie since Cam Newton who broke it the previous year. But Allen was still only targeted 66 times, which is 18 less targets than Fleener, who keep in mind, played four less games than Allen. Allen’s targets also pale in comparison to Wayne’s league-leading 194, Donnie Avery’s 125, and T.Y. Hilton’s 91. It’s safe to say Luck prefers throwing the ball down the field to his receivers and Allen simply isn’t the kind of guy who will be running deep post routes too often due to his lack of his speed. So he doesn’t quite fit the mold for the offense in terms of receiving.

Also, Allen showed a knack for blocking during his rookie season and often lined up in the slot and at fullback. While that makes him more versatile and more likely to be on the field in certain packages than Fleener, it does make him less of a fantasy threat since he won’t be out catching passes.

The case for Fleener

At 6’6, 252, an unofficial 4.45 40 time at his pro day in 2012, Fleener definitely has the physical qualities to be an elite tight end in the NFL. He’s got the added benefit of playing for an offensive coordinator who coached both he and Luck at Stanford, in an offense that saddled Fleener with 1,543 yards and 18 touchdowns during his time as a Cardinal.

The differences between Fleener’s role in former coordinator Bruce Arians’ offense vs. Hamilton’s could be striking. Fleener and Allen were asked to block a lot during their rookie seasons in order to protect Luck. While Allen proved especially good at it, Fleener is more of a natural receiver. With Arians now out, Hamilton is looking to get Fleener out in the open field more, according to this article.

Fleener caught only 26 passes in 2012, but was on pace for double that before a shoulder injury sidelined him for four games and limited him to just five catches in the Colts’ last nine regular season games. So he has an excuse, sort of.

The case against Fleener

Dubbed a sure-handed receiver at Stanford, Fleener had a tendancy to drop passes during his rookie season, a trait that can land any receiver on the bench no matter how talented — especially if it’s in a key moment. Fleener had a big drop during the team’s loss to the Jaguars last season on a Thursday night, where he mishandled a third-and-four pass which stalled a Colts drive when they were trailing 14-10 in the third quarter. Just ask Braylon Edwards what it does for your career when you can’t hang on to the football.  

The obvious thing going against Fleener is his own production in 2012. He was a virtual no-show in the Colts offense and needs to prove to his coaches he can produce when the big lights are on. That, of course, shouldn’t be an issue given his talent, but some players never get out of the doghouse once their confidence is shattered. Allen clearly started his career on a high-note in 2012 and has something to build on heading into 2013, Fleener doesn’t, so that’s one thing he has to overcome.

What both guys have going for them

Both are young guys who are only going to get better, and both bring a unique set of talents so its unlikely one will be fazed out of the offense if the other plays better. So age isn’t a problem either way.

Verdict

Fleener is still the better choice, but not by as much of you would think. In a ppr (points per reception) league, you can make a case for drafting Allen late, due to the fact that he’s a more sure-handed receiver who has already proven he can be a factor in an NFL offense. However, in touchdown based leagues, Fleener is a great sneaky pick in the late rounds for most 12-team leagues. His physical presence combined with the offensive system and playing with a dynamic quarterback in Luck gives him the bigger advantage heading into next season, even if he was outplayed by Allen in 2012. Go for Fleener.

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