ANDERSON – Let's read between the lines about all this praise being heaped on Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener in training camp.
From a media vantage point, behind the red-marked lines at the Anderson University practice field, two things are at work:
1. Fleener's rookie season, while not a flop, was a disappointment.
2. Fleener is expected to be a major part of the new-style Colts attack.
The man retooling the Colts' offense, coordinator Pep Hamilton, gushed about Fleener earlier this week.
“(He's) probably having the most productive camp, including his time at Stanford, that I've seen,” Hamilton said. “In the time I've been around Coby, he's a lot more explosive and confident right now and he's making plays that big-time NFL players tend to make.”
Colts coach Chuck Pagano reacted similarly.
“If he keeps practicing the way that he's practicing, then he's going to have a great season,” Pagano said. “He's a mismatch, you know, he's a handful for these guys.”
Fleener, of course, was the second pick in the 2012 draft by the Colts, joining his former Stanford teammate, quarterback Andrew Luck, as a building block for the new-era Colts offense.
In his first season, however, Fleener fought injuries and inconsistency and ended up being passed in tight end impact by the Colts' third pick, former Clemson standout Dwayne Allen. Allen caught 45 passes for 521 yards and three touchdowns. Fleener caught 26 for 281 yards and two touchdowns.
While Allen sometimes lined up in a fullback-type formation where the Colts could utilize his blocking, Fleener has had to work to improve his blocking skills.
“He's going to do better in the run game,” Pagano said of Fleener. “We expect more out of him in the run game, and he knows that. We're going to ask him to do a little more heavy lifting, lifting in the run game. But, certainly, in the pass game, he's a mismatch.”
Through the first week of training camp, Fleener has impressed onlookers with his sharpness in all phases of his game. He has made difficult catches look routine, and if that becomes the case he's a formidable target for Luck at 6-foot-6.
Fleener is hesitant to declare he is a better player this season, pointing out that it's early in training camp for any type of definitive assessment.
He does feel his familiarity with Hamilton's offense and his year's worth of NFL experience are pluses.
“Anytime you understand the offense, you feel more comfortable in being able to go out there and run as fast as you can and do your job at full speed as opposed to second-guessing,” Fleener said.
The tandem of Fleener and Allen gives the Colts' offense some versatility. Both are capable of lining up in the slot. Fleener can line up as a wide receiver, if desired. While training camp is a time to experiment, the Colts have been using a number of formations with receivers and tight ends.
Luck has about as many targets as a quarterback could want. Besides Fleener and Allen, he has veteran superstar receiver Reggie Wayne, second-year speedster T.Y. Hilton, newcomer Darrius Heyward-Bey, former Stanford receiver Griff Whalen and suspended-but-contrite second-year receiver LaVon Brazill. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw can be a nice target out of the backfield if he's healthy.
An improved Fleener – running better routes and having fewer drops – would be a huge bonus for the offense.
“You try to measure (training-camp progress) from a mental aspect – mental errors, missed assignments, stuff like that,” Fleener said. “From a physical standpoint, am I beating guys across from me? That's what football comes down to and, hopefully, we can do more and more of that.”
Fleener was asked about Hamilton's assessment that he's off to the best training camp start of his life.
“I don't know,” Fleener said. “I don't know the answer to that question, actually.”
By any measure, Fleener is off to a strong start for the first week.
Reaction to Fleener's play indicates the Colts coaches have a lot riding on him turning Year 2 into a big step forward.
It's safe to say that if Fleener is open, Luck will find him.