The Gut Check No. 249: The Insanity Series - Coby Fleener
By Matt Waldman
June 28th, 2012

The Insanity Series: Players That Will Drive You Mad in 2012

Every season there are players with appeal so strong that fantasy owners can't resist drafting them despite evidence that suggests otherwise. Likewise, there are also players with proven skill in great situations that fantasy owners still underestimate. This series is devoted to dispelling the illusions fantasy owners, football media, and fantasy analysts may have about them. My goal is to break through the wall of denial that exists regarding these players. While I'm aware that I might be the one who is ultimately deluded, these are players that I'm telling readers to be the naysayers or a strong advocate when it comes to fantasy drafts.

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Coby Fleener: A No.1 Fantasy Tight End In 2012? Keep Dreaming.

Fantasy Football Calculator's mock draft data has the Colts rookie tight end as the No. 12 player off the board at his position with an average pick at 11.05. This has Fleener couched between Tony Gonzalez and Jermaine Gresham while getting fantasy owner love well ahead of the likes of Owen Daniels, Jared Cook, Brent Celek, Greg Olsen, and Dallas Clark. I might see the logic of Fleener out-producing two or three of these players, but not all of them.

However, there are four problems with this dream state that many fantasy owners have:

  • Rookie tight end production
  • Fleener as a player
  • Andrew Luck
  • The Colts offense
  • One of the larger questions with this situation, and that of the projections for Tom Brady and Brandon Lloyd in the last article of this series, is whether it is the players that make the scheme or the scheme that makes the players? I think it is the players. Scheme helps, but ultimately the major difference is execution and generally the more talented players execute schemes more effectively.

    Boiling it down, I think fantasy owners listen to draft analysts like me compare the Colts draft day moves to the Patriots, see the pre-existing player relationship between Fleener and Luck, and then try to create modestly optimistic projections for the tight end based on this information. I don't think they're being modest enough. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez aren't automated parts. They're draft day steals put to revolutionary use.

    Productive Tight Ends vs. Dynamic Tight Ends

    Smart football writers have liked to point out this year that New England wasn't the first team to have two quality tight ends operating in the same passing offense and frequently on the field together. The Colts had Ken Dilger and Marcus Pollard. The Titans and Jackie Harris and Frank Wycheck. And Green Bay had Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura. Yet no duo has presented the range of mismatches that Gronkowski and Hernandez offer. They both can get the job done as fullbacks, H-backs, wide receivers, and tight ends. Gronkowski is a special all-around tight end and a great blocker. Hernandez is the most dynamic runner after the catch and move tight end this league has seen since Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome.

    It's the talents of these two players that made Gronkowski the No. 5 fantasy tight end and Hernandez the No. 11 tight end as rookies in 2010. And this production wasn't far from the norm. Before Gronkowski, there were only eight tight ends to ever achieve 100 fantasy points as rookies and Hernandez's 97 points matches Raiders tight end Raymond Chester for ninth on this list. Only three of those players from this Top 22 at the time did it in this century and only one was a rookie in the 1990s.

    I'm giving you this dour news as the same guy that predicted Aaron Hernandez would threaten to redefine rookie tight end production in 2010. This should underscore the point that while I see Coby Fleener developing into a productive tight end, I believe his ceiling is just on the border of what I consider dynamic play. I think he's capable of big plays and in some cases he'll present a mismatch, but I don't believe he has the top end speed, quickness, and fluid athleticism of Aaron Hernandez or for that matter, Gronkowski's athleticism and flexibility to dictate mismatches like these two.

    In fact, I don't believe Fleener is the best tight end, or necessarily the best fantasy tight end prospect, on the Colts. Dwayne Allen may lack Fleener's straight-line speed, but he's in my opinion a more fluid athlete in terms of making breaks, adjusting to the football in the air, and running after the catch. He's also the best blocking tight end of the 2012 NFL Draft class. Clemson used Allen as an H-Back, pass protector versus quality defensive end prospects, and both in the slot and split wide of the formation.

    I understand the Stanford and Clemson offensive systems have differences, but considering the quarterback play (huge edge to Stanford) and the receiver play (strong edge to Clemson) for these two teams last year, Fleener and Allen's production isn't much different:

    Coby Fleener's College Career

    Year
    School
    Conf
    Class
    Pos
    Rec
    Yds
    Avg
    TDs
    2008
    Stanford
    Pac-10
    FR
    TE
    13
    176
    13.5
    0
    2009
    Stanford
    Pac-10
    SO
    TE
    21
    266
    12.7
    1
    2010
    Stanford
    Pac-10
    JR
    TE
    28
    434
    15.5
    7
    2011
    Stanford
    Pac-12
    SR
    TE
    34
    667
    19.6
    10
    Career
    Stanford
    96
    1,543
    16.1
    18

    Dwayne Allen's College Career

    Year
    School
    Conf
    Class
    Pos
    Rec
    Yds
    Avg
    TDs
    2009
    Clemson
    ACC
    FR
    TE
    10
    108
    10.8
    3
    2010
    Clemson
    ACC
    SO
    TE
    33
    373
    11.3
    1
    2011
    Clemson
    ACC
    JR
    TE
    50
    598
    12.0
    8
    Career
    Clemson
    93
    1,079
    11.6
    12

    What I find humorous is that perception that Dwayne Allen had a "down year" in 2011 because he was used far more often in pass protection. However, he caught more passes than Fleener and nearly matched his new teammate's touchdown production on his way to his best year as a collegian. Granted, Fleener was used more as a big-play option during the past two years at Stanford and that is the aspect of his game where he has the edge.

    However, I am skeptical that Fleener will average even 15 yards per catch (much less the 19.6 of his senior year) during his first season in the NFL. If he does, I'm not expecting Fleener to even approach 40 receptions with that high of an average per catch.

    The "Luck" Factor and the Colts Offense

    While Fleener was averaging nearly 20 yards per catch last year, Andrew Luck lost Doug Baldwin to the NFL and speedster Chris Owusu to three concussions early in the year. The Colts shouldn't have this dearth of receiving talent in 2012.

    Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, and rookies T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill all possess the speed and/or quickness to stretch the field when paired with a quarterback of Luck's anticipation and accuracy. Then there's former Rams first-round vertical threat Donnie Avery. Throw in recently signed second-year prospect Kris Adams, who has blazing speed and his best skill at UTEP was getting deep, and Luck will have plenty of field-stretching talent to go around.

    Fleener will earn his intermediate and deep targets, but Luck's game is built on adjusting the offense to create mismatches and then reading the defense to find the open man. Rapport will be a comforting factor, but I don't think Luck will need that much of a security blanket. If he does, it will likely be a dump-off option in the flats and I believe that will mean more targets for the running back and Allen. Manning leaned hard on Marshall Faulk as a rookie. I don't think Fleener will be running those outlet routes as much as Allen.

    Much like Peyton Manning, Luck is a precision passer and he'll be operating with a duo in Wayne and Collie that were brought to Indianapolis to thrive in that style of offense. This is where system and talent mesh to have equal importance.

    Certainly, there's a chance that Fleener could approach top-12 production. I won't put that past him. However, I think he'll be fortunate to be the third option in this passing game and he'll probably be 3-A or 3-B with Allen and potentially, 3-C if Hilton performs well enough early. Even if the Colts pass more than they want due to a defense under construction, this team wants to be a power running team.

    Fleener is projected to earn 500-650 yards as a rookie and score four to six times. Seems like a modest number. However, I think Dwayne Allen is getting lost in the projections mix. Subtract another 150-250 yards and two to three touchdowns from Fleener's totals, and I think that will ground fantasy owners on a firmer plain of reality.

    As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to waldman@footballguys.com.

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