The New Orleans Saints turned some heads by giving tight end Coby Fleener a free agent contract this spring that initially looked rough. The five-year, $36-million signing was worth more than anyone expected Fleener to receive after an underwhelming four years with the Indianapolis Colts.
That doesn’t look bad anymore so much as prescient. The tight end market has exploded with players like Vance McDonald ($7 million per year), Zach Ertz ($8.5 million), Jordan Reed ($9.35 million), and Travis Kelce ($9.368 million) making Fleener’s yearly rate of just $7.2 million look downright pedestrian.
Fleener has the 13th-highest annual salary of all NFL tight ends, and is 16th in catches (43). A mix of younger players still on rookie contracts like Eric Ebron (43 catches as well) and C.J. Fiedorowicz (48), and older veterans playing at below their market value like Jason Witten (56 catches) and Greg Olsen (65 catches) help give some context and put Fleener’s contract in perspective. If anything, this time next year Fleener could be looking like a bargain.
The trouble is that Saints fans were spoiled by Jimmy Graham and a late-career surge by Benjamin Watson. They both played at very high levels, so Fleener - by all accounts a lesser talent - has struggled to meet the expectations they set.
We’ve returned to the level of production that we saw from Jeremy Shockey back before Graham revolutionized what Sean Payton and Drew Brees could get out of the tight end position.
For purposes of these charts I'm using data from Watson's 2015, when he was the unchallenged TE1. Other years skew his #'s pic.twitter.com/XbZrQGNKCw— john (@JSiglerNFL) December 13, 2016
So it’s no fault of Fleener’s that he’s a middling talent playing at a respectable level in the wake of extraordinary players.
There are some signs of optimism with Fleener: his 10 catches of 20+ yards are tied with Vernon Davis for fifth-most among all tight ends, with only Rob Gronkowski and Greg Olsen (12 each) and Delanie Walker and Travis Kelce (13 each) ahead of them. Outside of that group, no other NFL tight end has more than 8 catches for 20+ yards.
It should also be noted that 2016 has been a career year for Fleener. He has caught 43 passes on 68 targets for a rate of 63.2 percent, second only to his career-best catch rate of 64.3 percent that he set just last year. Before that, Fleener had never caught more than 60 percent of his targets in a season.
This trend extends to Fleeners’ raw production. His 3.3 catches per game average is again the second-best of his five-year career, and his 42.5 yards per game average is only the second time he has broken the 40-yards per game mark in a season.
To restate that, Coby Fleener has never turned the number of opportunities he’s been given into such a high number of catches and yards at the same time. He’s finally putting his game together after shining in one area or another every year in Indianapolis.
It remains to be seen whether Fleener will be a feared free agent bust, and his chronic problem of seeing passes bounce off his hands is incredibly frustrating. Hopefully more reps with Brees in the offseason will continue to build that connection. For now all we can trust is that Fleener is giving his best effort in every game. Let’s hope that will be enough.