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Saints 2016 Year in Review: Coby Fleener

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The Saints raised quite a few eyebrows during the 2016 offseason when, instead of targeting defense with their free agency, their splash signing was former Colts’ tight end Coby Fleener. Fleener signed a deal to the tune of five years, $36 million, in an uncharacteristically (for Loomis) balanced contract. Fleener finished the season with 50 receptions for 631 yards, but his season had a bell curve feel to it.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If Benjamin Watson proved anything for the Saints during the 2015 season, it’s that New Orleans runs a very tight end friendly offense. The 35 year old had the best season of his career with 74 receptions, 825 yards and six touchdowns (the former two of which are career highs and the latter tying his career high). When the Ravens signed Watson, the Saints had options at TE, and ultimately chose to stick with what had worked in past: Bring on a receiving tight end and use Josh Hill for 12 and 22 personnel groupings.

With that in mind, the Saints signed Coby Fleener, a four-year Colt that had shown flashes of brilliance in the receiving game. In 2014, Fleener caught eight touchdown passes, and the Saints were under the impression that they needed a red zone threat (at this time they had no way of knowing the kind of player that Michael Thomas would end up being). So New Orleans signed Fleener to five year contract for $36 million, $18 million guaranteed. They would pay him a nominal amount in 2016 and the rest of the contract would be fairly evenly spaced.

Fleener’s New Orleans career started . . . rough. He was targeted four times against the Oakland Raiders in week one, with only one catch for six yards. The next week against the Giants, it didn’t get much better. Fleener had two catches on nine targets for 29 yards in an all-around abysmal offensive performance in which the Saints’ offense never scored a touchdown.

Against Atlanta, Fleener began to gel a bit better. New Orleans began to cater to what he did well at Indianapolis, which is to say, lining up for seams rather than splitting him out like they did so often with Jimmy Graham.

Seam plays are something of a New Orleans’ special, and it’s one of Drew Brees’ favorite ways to exploit soft Cover 3 defenses like the one Atlanta runs here. The strong slot is to run a fly route in order to draw the attention of the deep safety. Fleener runs a seam route over the middle of the field, beyond the linebackers but underneath the free safety so as to give Brees a window to throw into.

Atlanta is running a shell Cover 3, where they concede the flats in an attempt to mitigate the big play. However, with the bottom-most receiver running underneath the coverage, Atlanta’s weakside DB makes a crucial mistake. He remains focused on the crossing route, while Fleener is giving room to run free. In essence, the high safety is covering two people where the weakside corner is covering none. With the receiver running underneath coverage, he should be passing him off to the linebackers that are already underneath, not dropping further back. At this point, he’s essentially in man for free runners.

The free safety never makes a decision, and instead continues his backpedal. Meanwhile, the backside corner keeps his hips squared to account for the underneath route, without realizing that a man is coming into his zone. Fleener begins to turn a bit more upfield, but not so much so that he’s heading into the free safety’s zone. This is the autonomy that seams with Brees gives receivers. With Brees winding up to throw, Fleener can go where the defense isn’t without worrying about someone undercutting him.

This is the first time Brees showed real chemistry with Fleener. He triangulates his throw between three Atlanta defenders, and converts for a 50 yard gain. Fleener catches it with room to run in stride, and New Orleans puts themselves into striking distance before the half.

Fleener’s best 2016 plays were when he ran relatively straight relatively fast (like this nonsense, for example). Where he struggled all year was with play design. He didn’t have the veteran savvy of a player like Watson or the overall receiving versatility of a guy like Jimmy Graham. He’s at his best when he’s running from the line and exploiting seams in zone coverage. This is why teams like the Giants were able to completely negate him as a factor. Fleener had only three games of five catches or more, and he is fairly weak in the running game.

Perhaps it’s on people for expecting more of Fleener, and honestly, he just wasn’t one of their best weapons in 2016. On a team with two 1,000 yard receivers and one that fell just short of 900 yards, Fleener was right around his career averages at Indianapolis. 50 catches for 631 yards and three TDs isn’t bad, it just isn’t what most people have come to expect within the New Orleans’ offense. With that being said, one is forced to wonder if Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael Jr. started to simply move away from Fleener a bit once he struggled. Only time will tell heading into next year.

The Saints don’t necessarily need big play production out of their tight ends right now. They have Fleener locked up for four years, so if nothing else he’s something to think about while Thomas and Brandin Cooks make plays split out. However, it’s going to be on Sean Payton to figure out how to use Fleener, because one trick ponies generally don’t have much of a role catching passes from Brees. If he doesn’t find a way to improve his route tree, Fleener may be the one coming in on specific packages instead of a healthy Hill in the near future.