Earlier this offseason, the Indianapolis Colts made a couple of notable moves at the tight end position, re-signing Jack Doyle to a three-year, $18.9 million contract and then the following day trading Dwayne Allen to the Patriots for a draft pick.
Those two moves were praised for the most part by Colts fans, and over the past few months we’ve talked quite a bit about why it was so important for them to re-sign Doyle. We’ve even heard Chris Ballard say that it was one of his first priorities when taking over the Colts, as Doyle stands for everything he wants a Colts player to stand for - he worked hard, earned his money, is a great presence in the locker room, and is a good player too.
But there has been a bit of concern by some - most notably the Indianpaolis Star’s Stephen Holder earlier this week - about Doyle’s ability to replace Allen, particularly from a blocking standpoint. Holder tweeted that the Colts “WILL miss Dwayne Allen more than you think,” and he expanded on those thoughts in an article:
I’m not here to defend Allen and his 35 catches, untold number of drops and constant nagging injuries. But what must be confronted is the fact that Allen was, by far, the best blocking tight end on the Colts’ roster the past few seasons. And for a team that leans on a power running game and uses a two-tight end lineup as its base offense, that’s not something that can be dismissed.
Jack Doyle, for all his great contributions and amazing reliability, is not Allen’s equal as a blocker. Do not make the mistake of assuming otherwise. Erik Swoope, a player who definitely should prompt much excitement, is not a polished blocker, either.
And then a bit later, Holder added that “the Colts would be mistaken to lean too heavily on either [Doyle or Swoope] as a blocker.”
So basically, here’s the gist of what Holder is saying: that Dwayne Allen was by far the Colts’ best blocker and that neither Jack Doyle nor Erik Swoope are capable of replacing him in that area. Holder is a smart, respected writer who certainly knows his stuff, so his thoughts shouldn’t just be discounted. In this instance, however, I respectfully disagree with his conclusions about Dwayne Allen.
First of all, this sounds a lot like what was being said last offseason regarding the loss of Coby Fleener. People were not so much questioning the decision to keep Allen over Fleener, much like people aren’t really questioning the decision to keep Doyle over Allen, but people were concerned about how the Colts were going to replace Fleener. Holder tweeted last offseason that “Fleener > Doyle - obviously” and that “Fleener to Doyle is a clear downgrade.” I’m not picking on Holder (I too thought the Colts would miss Fleener more than they actually did) but simply suggesting that it’s not new to think a tight end will be missed more than he actually winds up being missed. Keep that in mind as we move forward.
Here’s the deal with Dwayne Allen: he was a good player with a lot of potential and upside with the Colts. He started out terrific and had a great rookie season, and that inspired great confidence in his abilities. But then he missed all but one game in 2013 and from there the injuries started hampering him a bit. And whether due to those injuries or due to something else, he never really regained that 2012 form, though in 2014 he was still a very solid player. He showed glimpses of that potential both as a receiver and as a blocker, but his production clearly dropped off - so much so that fans took notice and started to turn on him. What happened, though, was that because he started off so well as a blocker he gained a reputation as an elite blocking tight end, and the coaches continued to treat him as such for the remainder of his tenure with the Colts even though the production wasn’t consistently showing it. So in many ways, I think that Allen was more living off of his reputation in the past few years than actually earning it.
But I guess the debate about Allen vs. Doyle as a blocker depends greatly on your criteria. Holder watches the team and thinks that Allen was far and away the best blocker on the team and will be hard to replace; while I also watch the team and think that Doyle was a better blocker than Allen recently and think that Doyle is more than capable of replacing him.
We know that Holder won’t accept PFF ratings in the debate (and you all know that I certainly don’t love them), but I think in this case they’re at least worth pointing out. Last year, Doyle was graded as the 15th-best run blocking tight end. Allen, meanwhile, was one of their lowest-graded blocking tight ends from the past two years. Again, we can debate the accuracy of PFF’s grades all day (which can be especially suspect for blockers since assignments aren’t known), but here’s my point: if there’s such a stark difference between the two from people who grade each play, it should at least be considered that maybe they’re on to something. Whether or not their grades on Doyle or Allen are completely accurate, the drastic difference between the two should be noted.
Additionally, it could serve us well to remember why Jack Doyle became popular with the Colts in the first place. Doyle was a local kid who got a chance and with hard work stuck around, but he was never viewed as a receiving tight end. His best career receiving season before 2016 included just 18 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns, and remember last offseason people were concerned about his ability to replace Fleener in the passing game. He wasn’t getting playing time and recognition for his receiving skills but for his blocking. Sure, he was just the number three tight end most of the time and occasionally the number two, but he was regarded as a strong blocker. Then, in 2016, he proved that not only could he absolutely handle a larger role (he started 14 games and played in all 16), but he could absolutely handle the receiving role too.
And just this week, when Chuck Pagano was asked what convinced the Colts that Doyle could be their number one tight end, the first thing he mentioned was blocking.
“I think we saw first and foremost his in-line blocking improved,” Pagano said on Wednesday. “Not only being just pigeon-holed as an H-back, he can fill that role and also be a mismatch guy that gets open and catches a bunch of balls between the hashes and also play down the field in the seams, in the red area and outside the numbers. He’s a reliable, reliable guy. The quarterback has a ton of faith and trust in that guy. He’s always where he’s supposed to be and that makes a huge difference.”
I’ll give you this: Doyle and Allen are not the same player. Whereas Allen was more of an edge blocker, Doyle is more of a versatile blocker - meaning that he can move around the offense and be able to block, whether it’s as an H-back like Pagano mentioned or as an edge blocker or somewhere else. But that doesn’t mean that Doyle can’t handle Allen’s role, and furthermore the Colts should absolutely play to Doyle’s strengths more (though the Colts’ coaches haven’t always been perfect at playing to a guy’s strengths).
In fact, I could see the Colts using Doyle pretty similarly to the way they used him last year. He was a versatile blocker and was used there quite a bit, and in the passing game he was a security blanket and reliable target for Andrew Luck. His average depth of reception was 5.86 yards, whereas Allen’s was 8.57 yards. So Allen was used as more of a deep receiving threat at tight end, which seems like something that Erik Swoope should be able to handle. The key will be to find a third tight end who can block, and the Colts signed one in Brandon Williams this offseason. I would imagine that having the all-around tight end in Doyle as the number one and a receiving tight end in Swoope as the number two would mean that the team will be looking for a blocking tight end as the number three (like Williams). Perhaps if anything, this will help the Colts’ coaching staff be better at scheming and helping their players, since it seemed that they still treated Allen like an elite blocker last year when his play didn’t live up to that.
In saying all of this, my intent isn’t to bash Dwayne Allen, who I think could experience a nice bounce-back year in New England if he stays healthy (talk about a team that utilizes their talent well!). Hopefully his skills as a blocker live up to his potential and hopefully he does well. Rather, my point in saying this is that I don’t expect there to be as big of a drop-off from Dwayne Allen to Jack Doyle as Stephen Holder seems to think there will be. I think Doyle has proven to be a more than capable blocker, and any difference in playing style that would lead to a slight dip in production should be easily dissuaded by a competent coaching staff.
So in short, a lot of this probably depends on what criteria you want to accept, and different people will have different opinions after watching the same tape. That’s fine and that’s part of the fun of the NFL and part of the offseason, as we’ll have to wait and see for sure either way come fall. But if you ask me, there shouldn’t really be any concern about Jack Doyle’s ability to replace Dwayne Allen.