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Barry Hirstius

INCOMPLETE: Saints TE Fleener Looks For Bigger Impact in 2017

Good but not great, and probably more like "okay". That was the general consensus for most of the people that are paid to observe and analyze NFL football and specifically the New Orleans Saints last year, regarding their starting TE Coby Fleener.

Fleener, who was the top free-agent signee of a year ago for New Orleans in 2016 NFL Free Agency, signed a 5 year, $36 million deal with the Saints following a solid if not spectacular first 4 years in the League with the Indianapolis Colts.

But he became expendable in Indy because of inconsistency, and that same inconsistency appeared to be what held him back last year in his first season with the Saints.

Specifically, it was his slow adaptation to the Saints offensive playbook that seemed to prevent him from putting up the huge numbers and gaudy stats that a player at his position within the Saints offense, is capable of having with Drew Brees as the quarterback.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Still however, he played in all 16 games and finished with 50 receptions, 631 yards and three touchdowns.  Fleener also scored his first career rushing touchdown in a Week #6 victory over the Panthers.

But for the lack of a better term, it would be a "false narrative" to say that he made anywhere near the impact that Saints brass were hoping for when they brought him aboard.

Fleener only caught 63% of the targeted passes thrown his way by Brees (50 completions on 80 targets), and three of the passes were intercepted -- two of them presumably because he ran the wrong route.

Graphic courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Pro Football Focus analyst Scott Barrett notes that Brees averaged a 83.9 passer rating when targeting Fleener. Among all other Saints receivers with at least 50 targets, Brees averaged a 115.3 passer rating.

Barrett adds that  Fleener’s 2016 season was the least-efficient of any of Brees’ receivers in the past 6 seasons dating back to the team's record-setting 2011 season, and ranking last in receiver rating (passer rating when targeted) among all tight ends in the entire League last year with a minimum of at least 75 targets.

It's just a few of the reasons why much bigger and hopefully better things are in store for both Fleener and the Saints offense as they get closer to the upcoming 2017 NFL season when the team reports to Training Camp in just 9 more days from this morning.

For his part, Fleener is well aware of the expectations that he failed to live up to last season; and is motivated to prove wrong some of his doubters that have labeled him as a "free agent bust".

“I wouldn’t say I set numerical goals. But I think it absolutely could’ve been better. I would have loved it to have been better,” Fleener said to reporters during OTA's a few weeks back.. “But had we gone to the playoffs and gone to the Super Bowl, [my numbers would have been] neither here nor there. And I think that’ll be the same goal this year.”

Fleener told New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill that instead of trying to master the knowledge of the entire Saints offensive playbook, this year he's taking a scaled back and more simple approach by just re-learning what he already knows about the offensive scheme after having a season of the offense under his belt; and perhaps more importantly: try to allow himself to feel more confident in both his role and in his capabilities.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

“I think anytime you’re trying to learn a new offense, trying to learn a language, trying to learn something of that nature, going through it under pressure, going through it for a year really helps,” he told Underhill.

“I think just opening the playbook for the first time this year and being familiar with those terms [is the biggest difference]. I’m not learning a whole new language this year, I’m not learning from Square 1. So being able to revamp and feel comfortable going out there and not having to worry about what play call is gonna come up is a huge benefit.”

One of the reasons that Fleener had earned the "bust" label from some fans, especially those who play Fantasy Football; was because of some very inopportune moments where he dropped a total of 3 passes that were either potential 3rd down conversions or in one other instance --- an easy touchdown that could have potentially made a difference, in the outcome of a couple of the Saints' losses last year.

He also made some mental errors on a handful of blocking assignments, which is something else that he hopes to get corrected as he grows more comfortable within the Saints system as well.

Fleener isn't worried about the Fantasy Football fans who were disappointed in his stat line last year, and is more concerned with just being certain that he can do what he was brought to New Orleans to do in the first place.

“Be more effective in general,” he said.

Still, Fleener isn't completely tone-deaf towards the people who doubt him and his abilities, and is eager to show everyone the talent that made him an All-American at Stanford University.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

Fleener was the #1 rated tight end prospect in the entire 2012 NFL Draft, a reason why he was taken with the #34 overall pick that year by the Colts.

(Source: Mark Lagrange)

Now through his 5-year NFL career, Fleener has caught a total of 233 passes for 2,785 yards and 20 TD's; and is averaging 12 yards per catch.

But they are stats that he'd no doubt like to add a lot more bigger numerals to, in 2017. Especially the type of numbers that Saints fans were expecting from him, as well as those who participate yearly in the hundreds of thousands of Fantasy Football Leagues throughout the country.

Given the disappointment that left his first year impact in New Orleans somewhat "incomplete", the Saints are definitely hoping for the very same thing.......

Saints News Network featured columnist and Big Easy Magazine contributing writer Barry Hirstius is a 52-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 45 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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