Last week the New Orleans Saints signed Coby Fleener to a five-year deal reportedly worth $36 million over the term of the deal. The signing filled a huge gap that opened once Ben Watson agreed to terms with the Baltimore Ravens.
While no one is expecting Fleener to be the kind of teammate and leader that Watson was for the Saints — and Watson truly is a great man, as evidenced in his spoken and written word — it is highly anticipated that Fleener will be expected to fill the “TE1” role come August.
The Saints also re-signed Michael Hoomanawanui who filled a mop-up role at tight end last year playing in 12 games in 2015, along with eight starts. Hoomanawanui was only targeted 16 times in those 12 games, nearly half as many times as TE Josh Hill (30) and only a fraction of the targets that Ben Watson received (110).
While the 2016 NFL Draft may hold a few unknown and unproven options at tight end the Saints cannot afford to screw around with a position that unlocks so many doors for their offense and for their Hall-of-Fame quarterback, Drew Brees.
A handful of teams have been active in the first couple weeks of free agency and one team in particular has made quite a splash with respect to personnel moves and the tight end position. Earlier this week, the New England Patriots made a big trade with the Chicago Bears for TE Martellus Bennett by shipping away a fourth and sixth round draft pick for the eight-year NFL vet. That’s a serious upgrade at tight end for a team who already has probably the best tight end in the league in Rob Gronkowski.
Possibly the most appropriate question to ask is whether tight end is the position the Saints should be worrying about first-hand or whether this is a position that can be taken care of through less taxing means.
The way the Saints played defense from start to finish last fall, it would make one believe that free agents on the other side of the ball would be pursued more heavily. Especially when players on the roster might hold more upside and youth. Namely, exclusive rights free agent Josh Hill — he 0f the second most targets on the team at tight end in 2015 — who received a relatively low tender from the team and is already being seriously pursued by at least one team.
If the Saints were to lose Hill they would be without their top two tight ends from 2015.
Finally, if you assume all else to be accurate with the Saints’ assumptions on free agency imperatives then you have to evaluate the individual they chose to pursue. So, let’s take a look at Fleener and his peers.
Stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com
Of all the league’s tight end options (TEs in this list are: under 30 years of age; played in at least 10 games in 2015; and had greater than 49 targets in 2015) ranked in descending order of yards per target, only nine tight ends had a better year in 2015 than Coby Fleener.
While Fleener’s catch percentage rate of 64.3% might be concerning — personally I would prefer if my receiver caught my passes better than 6 out of 10 attempts — it appears that his average is just that: average for tight ends in the league. He may be no Tyler Eifert (70.3% catch rate) he’s definitely not a Jordan Cameron (50% catch rate).
Fleener’s numbers against the league in 2014 are even better. He actually ranked in the top five that year amongst tight ends (third, behind Travis Kelce and Gronk) with 8.4 yards per target.
So, all in all, maybe the Saints will get some useful minutes out of Fleener. Optimism is good for the soul, anyways.
Maybe the key question should be: Can Fleener play D?