When tight end Dwayne Allen was lost for the season with a hip injury early on, people rightly stated that Coby Fleener would need to step up to replace Allen. But the fact of the matter was that Fleener was a different type of player than Allen, more of a true receiver than blocker and much more one sided than the well rounded Allen.
So far, so good. After a (somewhat) disappointing rookie season a year ago, Fleener is having a good season this year, catching 22 passes for 235 yards and 3 touchdowns through 7 games. He is on pace for 50 catches, 537 yards, and 7 touchdowns this season if he stays healthy (he has played in every game so far, which is HUGE).
But consider this - Coby Fleener was essentially a first round pick (number 34 overall in 2012). Right now his numbers are good - but his receiving yardage ranks 20th among tight ends this year, 99th overall. And consider that guys like Rob Gronkowski and Dennis Pitta, who both had good seasons last year, have yet to play a game this year (and Pitta won't either, as he is on IR). I'm not trying to say that Coby Fleener isn't having a good year - he is. And that is why I think he is capable of stepping up now, and the Colts certainly need him to.
Now, Andrew Luck's biggest weapon is out for the season, as Reggie Wayne tore his ACL in Sunday's win. The talk amongst Colts fans and media the past few days has been who the team will bring in to replace Reggie. While it would be stupid to rule out Ryan Grigson (a.k.a. the Trade Master) making a trade, I think that considering the fact that the Colts are already without their first and fourth round picks in next year's draft, the best option might be to bring in a free agent or two and then count on the guys you already have in place to step up.
This means Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has caught just 18 passes for 190 yards and one score this year, needs to step up. He has been good in short to mid range targets, but when it comes to getting deep, he gets open but then can't catch the pass. That won't work, and with Reggie out he's going to have to catch those deep passes and do more underneath as well.
This means that T.Y. Hilton, who is having a very good year with 27 catches for 412 yards and 2 scores, is going to have to do more also. He is now the leading active receiver for the Colts, and it's not really close - he has 5 more catches, 20 more targets, 177 more yards, 2 more 20+ yard plays, and 5 more first downs than the next closest active pass catcher for the Colts. T.Y. Hilton can step up, I'm sure of that, but if he is the only legitimate receiving threat the Colts have then it is going to be major trouble for the offense.
And guess what? Outside of that, Griff Whalen is the only true receiver who has caught a pass for the Colts this year, catching 2 for 28 yards. Now he's on the practice squad (although don't be surprised if he is called up). David Reed has zero catches, and he has just 5 for 66 yards in his career. LaVon Brazill has zero catches after being suspended for the first four games of the season, and for his career he has just 11 catches for 186 yards and a score. Da'Rick Rogers, also on the Colts practice squad, has yet to catch a pass in an NFL game, as he is a rookie this year.
The running backs (and fullbacks, too!) have combined for 27 catches, 182 yards, and 1 score this year - and 9 of those catches and 43 of those yards are from players not on the active roster currently. The tight ends (outside of Coby Fleener) have caught 4 passes for 61 yards and a score - and only 1 of those catches for 7 yards is by a guy currently on the active roster.
Coby Fleener is actually now the second leading receiver on the active roster for the Colts, catching 22 passes for 235 yards and a team-high (including Wayne) 3 touchdowns. He has been good, don't get me wrong, but he has yet to draw serious attention from defenses. That must change now.
With Reggie Wayne out, here is the receiving production the Colts currently have on their active roster: 86 catches for 983 yards and 7 scores, with 148 targets and 46 first downs. That's roughly 64% of Luck's season production. Good, yeah, but considering the fact that it's mid-season and that's all they have left, it's concerning. In just one play on Sunday, the Colts lost close to 30% of their receiving production on the season in Reggie Wayne.
So the obvious question is this: where do the Colts make up that production? Can they?
The answer is no. Reggie Wayne is honestly irreplaceable. But the Colts must move on and regroup, because they are legitimate Super Bowl contenders at quarterback. They just need more people stepping up to catch his passes.
I don't the best option is bringing in someone via trade because, well, I don't think any of the options available are guys worth the Colts' second round pick in a draft where they are already without their first and fourth rounders. I'm totally in favor of brining in a free agent or two, but at this time of the year there is definitely a reason they are free agents and they cannot be expected to account for the production lost with Wayne's injury. The best receiving options to replace Reggie Wayne that the Colts are going to find are on their roster currently. T.Y. Hilton is very good, but just how much of an increased role can he handle? We're going to have to find out very quickly. I have faith in T.Y. stepping up, but to make up for the loss of Reggie it will take much more. DHB needs to step up also, and it begins by hauling in the passes he is supposed to catch (and most of his drops come 20+ yards downfield). The running backs will continue to be involved, and perhaps slightly more so now, but the Colts have already incorporated the check down and screen passing game very well and I'm not sure doing more of that will be much more successful. And, outside of Coby Fleener, the Colts have one active tight end, Jack Doyle, whose first career catch came on Sunday against the Broncos, a 7 yard gain.
All of that leaves us with Coby Fleener. Now the Colts' second leading receiver, being the 20th best tight end in the league just isn't going to cut it. I understand that Fleener is having a good year (I've stated that multiple times already) and it is probably unfair to expect him to increase his production a ton right now, but the fact is that the Colts are now without their best receiver and they are going to need to compensate for that somehow, or else their very-promising season is going to begin to fall apart. As I already said, I think the best options to replace Wayne are currently on the team, and perhaps the most important player and best option to replace him is tight end Coby Fleener.
Fleener creates match up problems for defenses, like a lot of tight ends do. Fleener's size (he is 6 foot 6) makes him a difficult guy to cover, especially in the red zone, and add is speed to that and he becomes a problem for defenses. Although so far this year, he hasn't done much to scare defenses into focusing on him. That's really what needs to change now - he absolutely must either draw the defense's attention or make them pay dearly for not doing so. Both are acceptable, but it begins with putting together a few great games in a row. If he draws the defense's attention, that opens it up for other guys. If they don't focus on him, then Fleener needs to make them realize that they should have by catching a bunch of passes for a bunch of yards and some scores.
So far, Fleener has been inconsistent and much maligned by Colts fans. Honestly, though, his season has been good and his production is about in line with what should have been expected from the second year tight end. But now, due to an unfortunate situation where the Colts lost one of the league's best receivers, Fleener is going to have to do more. Entering the season, I said that he was poised for a very big year, and I said the same thing after the Dwayne Allen injury. Now, after the Reggie Wayne injury, I'll say the same thing and add that it has never been more crucial for him to step up.
The Colts aren't going to be able to replace Reggie Wayne. You can't just replace the guy who has the most catches and receiving yards in the entire NFL since 2004. But the Colts need to try, because right now they are Super Bowl contenders. Ryan Grigson will scour the waiver wires and make phone calls inquiring about trades, but I'm pretty sure the best option he is going to find is going to be on his own roster. And one of the guys who has the potential to step up and who needs to is tight end Coby Fleener. He's having a good year and he has the talent to be much better - the Colts need him to be that right now. I think he can be, but we're about to find out.