The New Orleans Saints’ decision to grab former Colts tight end Coby Fleener in free agency was met with surprise in some circles.
New Orleans had just proven that it didn’t need a big-name tight end to get production out of the position. After a year of critics wondering where the production would come from after the decision to trade Jimmy Graham, Ben Watson surprised everyone by putting up the best statistical season of his career at the age of 35. Between Watson’s performance and the Saints’ lack of cap space, the thinking went, the Saints didn’t need to spend big money on a tight end.
For General Manager Mickey Loomis, the decision to bring in Fleener was much more simple than all of that second-guessing.
“We had a good opportunity to get a great player, and we seized it,” Loomis said. “It’s as simple as that.”
New Orleans, who lost Watson to the Baltimore Ravens the day before free agency opened and released Marques Colston, needed a big target capable of working over the middle and stretching the field up and down the seams.
Fleener, who ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine four years ago, has the speed and size at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, to handle that role.
“Knowing that they have been so successful on offense with Drew leading the way and using the tight end was something that was easily exciting for me,” Fleener said in his introductory teleconference in New Orleans last week.
Fleener knows what he’s getting into.
Saints coach Sean Payton has always been able to use the tight end. Before Graham emerged as one of the best in the league, players like Jeremy Shockey, David Thomas, Billy Miller and Eric Johnson often combined to produce 80-100 catches from the position in Payton’s passing attack.
The Saints expect Fleener to step right into the lineup and continue that tradition.
“He’s a talented player, can run. He’s been productive in their offense,” Loomis said. “That’s a position that we’ve gotten a lot of production out of for the last 10 years, really, and I expect that going forward, and so here’s an opportunity to get a talented young player, partly in response to losing Ben, but I think he’ll fit in well with our offense.”
Fleener, who signed a five-year, $36 million deal at the age of 27, provides a lot more possibilities in the long-term than Watson, who landed a two-year, $8 million deal in Baltimore.
But he has a tough act to follow in terms of leadership. Watson was voted a team captain last season, and his work in the community made him a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Fleener doesn’t have to fill that shoe, necessarily. Only a few NFL players could.
For the moment, New Orleans is only expecting Fleener to keep one of the league’s best passing offenses humming.
“Ben got a great opportunity, and we’re happy for him,” Loomis said. “We love Ben Watson. He did a lot of great things for us, so I expect the same for Coby Fleener.”