The Colts kick off their season at home versus Oakland in 73 days. In the meantime, we’re taking a look at a few position groups on the current 90 man roster that will have to be whittled down to 53 by August 31.
Today’s preview is for a position with only five players. There are no questions who will be on the field when the Colts come out in a two tight end set, only which of those promising players will be a bigger part of the offense. Beyond that are three young players who, based on last year’s roster, are battling for one spot.
Allen and Fleener
Last year the Colts, after selecting Andrew Luck with the number one overall pick, saw a smart, athletic tight end from Stanford fall to them in the second round. After the Coby Fleener pick, they turned right around and drafted Clemson’s Dwayne Allen, another smart, athletic tight end, in the third. With both Fleener and Allen, the Colts’ top two tight end spots are set, hopefully for years to come.
With all that emphasis on the position in the draft, the Colts looked poised to feature their new tight ends extensively in their game plans. While it didn’t happen as much as fans and observers expected, the duo still saw 114 passes come their way, which is a decent amount for two rookies, accounting for 18% of Luck’s 627 attempts.
We should expect two things this season. First, if the Colts have improved their roster enough not to be playing from behind as much as they did last year, Luck should be attempting fewer passes. Second, with a season under their belts and a new offense that should put the tight ends to use even more, Allen and Fleener could see a higher percentage of Luck’s passes directed at them.
The next question, naturally, is which player will play a bigger role. My belief is these players are near equal as long as neither takes a step back this year. Nevertheless, here is a quick comparison of the two as we await the triumphant return of football:
Previous On-field Production
Fleener: 26 receptions on 48 targets for 281 yards and 2 TD’s in 12 games, an average of 2.2/4 for 23.4 yards per game
Allen: 45 receptions on 66 targets for 521 yards and 3 TD’s in 16 games, and average of 3.75/5.5 for 32.6 yards per game
Hands and Route Running
Fleener, already known as a fantastic route runner, caught a decent 54% of his passes in 2012, the same as Luck’s completion rate and a respectable number for a rookie. Fleener also caught 14 first downs, or 54% of his receptions. With a full offseason under his belt (he missed OTA’s last year) Fleener should look a great deal better this year.
Allen, another accurate route runner, reeled in a surprising 68% of the passes Luck threw his way last season, 14% above Luck’s completion percentage, and 67% of those catches were for first downs (just one percent below Reggie Wayne). This indicates more than just good hands. Allen, despite his speed limitations, was getting open regularly against top-level competition as a rookie.
Advantage: Allen. We can expect Fleener to close the gap in the hands department in 2013.
Measurables and Upside
Fleener didn’t run the 40-yard dash at the 2012 NFL combine because of an ankle injury, but he turned in a 4.51 40 at his pro day, a scorching time for a tight end. Besides being difficult for average linebacker to cover, Fleener is 6 foot 6 with gigantic 10-inch ands and a 37-inch vertical leap. Despite not being a great blocker, Fleener also showed surprising upper body strength at the combine, totaling an offensive lineman-like 27 bench press reps. This guy has the athleticism and speed of a Dallas Clark, and the size and power of a Rob Gronkowski.
Allen worked out at the combine, but he didn’t fare as well, costing him some serious money as it caused him to fall to the third round in the draft. At 6-3 255, Allen is a great receiving tight end, and he has proven that he’s also a powerful and effective blocker. He also had 27 reps on the bench press and showed a good vertical jump at 32 inches, but his 40-time came in at 4.89 seconds.
Both players are intelligent, precise route runners and both are matchup problems because of their size, though Fleener is more athletic. Allen looks like the better blocker so far, and his sure handedness is very impressive. Fleener holds the upside card because of his height and speed. Playing in a familiar offense and no longer slowed by a college injury, Fleener should make a bigger impact this year and at least come close to being equal to Allen statistically.
Whichever player ends up catching more passes in 2013, when they need to move the chains or make a play in the red zone, Colts fans will be glad to have both of these guys on their side.
The Battle for the Third Spot
Last season, Indianapolis kept three tight ends on their roster with a fourth on the practice squad. They ended the year with Weslye Saunders, who appeared in 11 games, as their third TE and Dominique Jones on the practice squad. Both players are big, bruising blocking tight ends (though Saunders has some good speed), which makes sense for goal line and short yardage sub packages. However, should Allen or Fleener miss time due to injuries, a third tight end who can get open and make some catches would be a major asset.
Joining the battle for the backup tight end spot is the last pick in the 2013 draft, Justice Cunningham, another big blocking tight end who is said to have underrated and underutilized receiving skills. Cunningham, Jones, and Saunders will compete for the third tight end spot, and unlike the last receiver spot, should earn some playing time with the offense, mostly as an extra blocker.
We’ll briefly attempt to compare these three players – just production and measurables/potential, although there just isn’t as much information out there about these guys. For instance, Saunders may have been born in Durham, SC, or Gary, IN, depending on where one looks him up. And Dominique Jones has a LinkedIn profile with 71 connections, but that doesn’t help much either. Anyway, here goes nothin’:
Weslye Saunders has appeared in 27 games in two years with Pittsburgh and Indy, totaling 6 receptions on 12 targets for 44 yards and a touchdown. It doesn’t sound like much, but he definitely has the most NFL experience of the group.
Dominique Jones, not to be confused with the Dallas Maverick of the same name, was on the Colts active roster for the first four games last year, catching an 8-yard pass in week one before spending time on Miami’s and Indy’s practice squads.
Justice Cunningham, like Saunders, played football at the University of South Carolina. Unlike Saunders, he stayed all four years and was the team captain as a senior. Cunningham caught 23 passes for 324 yards as a senior and had some big moments against big name non-conference opponents.
Advantage: Saunders, but not by much
Measurables and Potential
Saunders (6-5, 261) is a prototypical NFL tight end with good speed for the position (4.54-second 40 at the 2011 combine), good athleticism, and he’s 6 foot 5. You can’t teach a guy to be 6-5. His weaknesses are route running and blocking, which could be a problem since a third tight end should be a reliable blocker. The other issues are character and maturity. Saunders was kicked off the South Carolina football team for unspecified reasons apart from being investigated by the NCAA for possible agent contact violations involving a party in Miami. (Videos: Saunders’s TD with the Steelers, Saunders playing at South Carolina)
Dominique Jones (6-3, 270) might be athletic. He might be an amazing blocker. He might know karate. He might be a great many things, but we only have what we know, which doesn’t include any stats or combine measurements. We do know Jones went to Shepard University, where he looked like a man among boys, outrunning, juking and just plain bulldozing his helpless small college opponents (video highlights – My favorite part is when he goes in motion at the 4:40 mark and two defenders follow him across the formation before he catches a TD). He played for the UFL’s Sacramento Mountain Lions in 2011 (Here are some video highlights), and the IFL’s Reading Express – as a wide receiver…a 270 pound wide receiver – in 2012. Neither of his professional team bios mentions any statistics.
Justice Cunningham (6-3, 258), the…um…smallest of the three, has been compared to an offensive tackle for his blocking ability. Mike Mayock even called him a “thumper.” I’m pretty sure that’s a compliment. Unfortunately, Cunningham also ran an offensive lineman-like 4.94-second 40-yard dash (yes, that would be a quick lineman). With his blocking skills, however, this year’s Mr. Irrelevant has a real chance of sticking around if he can show he’s able to get open and snag some passes too. (Video: Cunningham taking on Tennessee – this kid has a nasty streak when he’s blocking. Here, too are some Justice Cunningham highlights)
Advantage: Well, that depends on what the Colts want in a third TE. Jones and Cunningham are big, old school blocking types who can take on linebackers in the passing game if they run their routes well enough while Saunders has the extra dimension of speed/athleticism and could edge the other two if he has matured sufficiently and puts forth a strong effort.
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