Entering the season, I felt very, very comfortable about the tight end position, writing that, "outside of quarterback, there may not be a position on the Colts roster that is more set than the tight end position," and that, "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." I meant every single word of that, too. Of course, however, I wasn't anticipating one of those tight ends to miss the entire season. It's really hard to have the league's best tight end duo when only one of the tight ends is actually healthy.
That's exactly what happened. In the first game of the 2013 season, second-year tight end Dwayne Allen went down with an injury that would end his season with only 1 catch for 20 yards and a touchdown. I wrote of Allen before the season:
"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."
To read more of what other people were saying of Allen before the season, read this. He looked poised to take the next step towards being an elite tight end - and he was injured in the first game.
That put the pressure on Coby Fleener, the other half of that tight end duo I mentioned. Fleener was actually drafted before Dwayne Allen in 2012, as he was the Colts second round selection (34th overall). He had a decent rookie season, but it didn't live up to the expectations fans had of him. With his former offensive coordinator at Stanford joining the Colts as their new offensive coordinator, Fleener was poised to have a big role in the offense regardless. When Dwayne Allen went down (and later Reggie Wayne), it increased the pressure on Fleener, and despite that he had an impressive sophomore season in 2013. He caught 52 passes for 608 yards and 4 touchdowns, averaging 11.7 yards per catch. He played in 16 games, which was up from 12 the year before. Through his first two seasons, Fleener has caught 78 passes for 889 yards, 6 touchdowns, and averaged 11.4 yards per catch. By comparison, Dallas Clark caught 54 passes for 763 yards, 6 touchdowns, and averaged 14.3 yards per catch in his first two seasons.
Fleener played a very important role in the Colts offense and in fact only one other Colt (T.Y. Hilton) ended the season with more receptions, targets, yards, and touchdowns than Fleener did. He served as a safety blanket for Andrew Luck but at the same time was a dangerous weapon. Perhaps the biggest improvement Fleener made was in the area of drops. He struggled with them last season and in preseason and training camp it was incredibly apparent that Fleener had trouble hanging onto the football. I vividly remember one instance where Fleener dropped a ball in the end zone in camp and one of the assistant coaches just lit into him about how he needed to hang onto the football. And that was clear to all of us watching every day, too, that Fleener had a drop issue. But once the regular season started, the drops pretty much disappeared. It was incredible and a very welcome change. Fleener actually caught most of the balls that were catchable thrown to him this year and did a very good job at hanging onto it.
The area where Fleener most needs to improve is in the area of route running. He was a popular third down option for the Colts and did manage to notch 32 first downs overall on the season. But very often he would run his route a yard or two shy of the first down. It seems like a minor detail but it can have a big impact. Part of route running is being aware of where the first down marker is and running your route the right depth in order to get the first down - especially if it's third down, but honestly on every down so that the timing isn't thrown off. That is something that Fleener has to work on, since it happened a lot that his route would be just a yard or two shy of the first down.
Overall, however, Coby Fleener had a very impressive second season and continued to develop into a nice tight end. The Colts use him almost exclusively as a receiver (which is smart), which is part of what made the loss of Dwayne Allen even bigger - they needed a tight end that could block.
They tried to fill that role with three tight ends throughout the year, with the rookie Justice Cunningham, Dominque Jones, Jack Doyle, and Weslye Saunders - and none of them were really that impressive. I liked Jones in training camp and I would have given Cunningham some playing time to see what he could do, but he got the least time of them all. In fact, he was only played in one game this year. Jones played in 6 games, Saunders played in 6 games (plus the two playoff games) and Doyle played in 15 (plus the 2 playoff games). Saunders missed the first several weeks due to a suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse program, and when he came back he was terrible. He dropped several passes when thrown to and didn't do much as a blocker, either. Doyle was respectable as a blocker but nothing special. Jones was impressive in training camp and preseason and I thought he could help the Colts out, but they didn't stick with him throughout the year. He wasn't that great, but considering who else they had, I probably would have given Jones more of a chance than he got. None of the three players were good enough that I would feel comfortable with them playing next year for the Colts, though, that's for sure.
Coby Fleener had a very good year for the Colts at tight end. No one else did. But they lost their best tight end and one of their best players overall less than one game in, and if he had played we would be talking very differently not only about the tight end position but the Colts season as a whole. General manager Ryan Grigson will no doubt make several moves this offseason to try and improve the team, but in my mind no addition will come close to having the impact that getting Dwayne Allen back will have. He will play a major factor in the offense (which he was going to this year, too) and will bring a high level of play. Perhaps next season we'll see the Colts have one of the best tight end duos in the NFL. Coby Fleener improved. No one else really stepped up. Dwayne Allen will be back but his loss was devastating this year. There's your summary of the position for you.
TIGHT ENDS GRADE: B -
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2013 season by position, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews: