Outside of quarterback, there may not be a position on the Colts roster that is more set than the tight end position. The top two guys are both entering their second year in the league and both guys are poised to have great seasons as a part of the tremendous passing attack that will be Andrew Luck's Colts offense in 2013.
Dwayne Allen likely will be the team's number one tight end, but like the running backs it's for designation only. Allen had a spectacular 2012 season that saw the third-round pick play in and start every game while catching 45 passes for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns. Allen's contribution in the passing game was much greater than his numbers may indicate and his contribution to the Colts was also much greater. Allen is a very good blocker and a real complete tight end. Unfortunately, many people miss just how good Allen was last year because they don't look at his blocking at all. As a receiver he was good, and as a blocker he was even better. Pro Football Focus even ranked Allen as one of their "secret superstars" after he was their second-highest graded tight end last year. Allen is the team's number one tight end and is a guy with pro bowl potential in the future - the only real question is whether that is this year or next.
The team's second tight end but one that will see major playing time as well is last year's second round pick Coby Fleener. Andrew Luck's teammate at Stanford played in 12 games (starting 10) for the Colts last year, catching 26 passes for 281 yards and 2 touchdowns. His rookie season was hampered by injuries and as a result his rookie year wasn't nearly what people expected. With his former offensive coordinator at Stanford, Pep Hamilton, coming in to run the Colts' offense, Fleener should be poised for a much bigger year in 2013. In fact, I wrote back in March about that very subject. As long as he stays healthy, Coby Fleener is a real breakout candidate.
Those two players are locks to make the roster. The other three tight ends are likely fighting for one roster spot.
Dominique Jones was signed by the Colts last offseason after spending the 2011 season in the United Football League. Jones made the 53-man roster out of training camp and played in four games (starting one) before he was released in October and signed to the practice squad. The Dolphins signed him a few weeks later, but then in mid-November they released him and Jones once again joined the Colts. He caught only one pass for 8 yards all season, but it was a significant one - it was the first regular season pass attempt of Andrew Luck's career. Jones was impressive last preseason and he enters this year's training camp hoping to make the same impact he did last year and make it on to the 53-man roster.
Jones may face a slightly uphill battle, however, as the Colts seventh round draft pick Justice Cunningham looks to make the roster as well. This year's Mr. Irrelevant, Cunningham is almost exclusively a blocking tight end. His blocking is very good and that is what the Colts will use him for, though he can catch the ball as well. In his career at South Carolina he hauled in 50 passes for 581 yards and a touchdown, and this year in offseason work Cunningham reportedly caught the eyes of many with his play, much of it coming through his receiving.
Weslye Saunders rounds out the five tight ends on the roster right now. Saunders was originally signed as an undrafted free agent before the 2011 season and he played in 16 games (starting 6) for the Steelers that year and was with them for the first part of the 2012 season before being released in October. Just a few days after he was released, the Colts signed him. He played in 11 games (starting 4) for Indy last season and caught 2 passes for 15 yards on the year. He too is a blocking tight end.
The Colts will very likely keep only three tight ends. That's a normal number and I couldn't imagine them keeping any more or any less to start the season. So we know the first two, and with Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener they are absolutely set at the position and should get great production from those two playmakers. After them, however, who rounds out the tight end spot as the third guy?
This actually should be quite a battle in camp and will likely come down to two things: who blocks the best and who plays the best on special teams. That is what the third guy - whether it be Jones, Cunningham, or Saunders - will be asked to do. Block and play special teams.
Because of the fact that he is regarded as a very good blocker and that the Colts drafted him and that he has been so impressive in offseason work, I'm inclined to give Cunningham an ever so slight advantage at this point. The thing that both Jones and Saunders have going for them, however, is that they both were with the team last year. Still, it's a different offense and they didn't exactly impress to the point of giving them a huge edge right now.
I think that when the regular season starts and the Colts host the Raiders on September 8, Justice Cunningham will be the third tight end. It really is up for grabs, however, but at this point I think Cunningham makes the 53-man roster.
Regardless of whether Cunningham makes the final roster or not, wouldn't it be great to see last year's Mr. Irrelevant Chandler Harnish throw a pass to this year's Mr. Irrelevant Justice Cunningham? That would be one spectacularly irrelevant play.
The battle for the third tight end spot will be interesting to watch, but the starters will hopefully make it a purely depth move. Because if both Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener stay healthy, you can be sure that they will be starting and you can be sure that they will be a huge part of the Colts offense in 2013.
And with the Patriots' tight end duo falling completely apart, there is a real chance that the duo of Allen and Fleener could emerge as the best tight end duo in the NFL this year. This position is a strength of the team and it is one that Colts fans can feel very good about going into the season.