Nick Underhill analysis: Saints betting big on Coby Fleener flourishing in New Orleans _lowres

Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener (80) after a catch against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) ORG XMIT: NAS1

The Saints started the day with a void at tight end that had to be filled.

Ben Watson, who stepped up to fill the void created by the departure of Jimmy Graham last season, bolted town and signed with the Baltimore Ravens. New Orleans responded by tendering restricted free agent Josh Hill. It then made an even bigger splash by signing Coby Fleener.

This isn’t going to be a cheap marriage. The deal is for five years and worth up to a reported $36 million, which means the Saints are hoping the 27-year-old will not only be the long-term answer at tight end, they’re betting on him becoming the next star of this offense.

For that investment, they’re going to need him to be since the Saints are looking for more playmakers.

On paper, losing Watson and veteran wide receiver Marques Colston created a bit of a void over the middle in the passing game. Wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead have shown an ability to get open in traffic, but both players play primarily outside the numbers.

It was Watson who Brees often depended on up the seams and Colston who worked to find soft spots in the zone and provided the quarterback with a security blanket over the middle. Fleener will be leaned upon to help fill some of that production and after reviewing his 2015 game film, it looks he can do those things.

In fact, it looks like he has the ability to become the player New Orleans is betting he can become.

But despite having such ability, his numbers with the Indianapolis Colts never flourished the way it was expected when he was drafted out of Stanford in the second round of 2012 draft and paired with his college quarterback, Andrew Luck.

He set a career high in catches with 54 last season but finished the year with 491 yards. His best seasons came in 2014 when he finished with 774 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He logged 608 yards in 2013.

Getting away from Dwayne Allen, who caught some passes and logged a good amount of snaps at tight end for the Colts, should help Fleener see his production go up. And his lack of yards last season should be viewed with the knowledge that Indianapolis had a revolving door at quarterback with Luck battling injuries throughout the season.

But a review of Fleener’s 84 targets last season it easy to see why the Saints would be attracted to him and willing to make such a large commitment.

Fleener showed an ability to do everything he’ll need to do in New Orleans. He succeeded in the passing game lined up in the slot, outside and as an inline tight end, which is something the Saints require of their tight ends.

He also ran a variety of routes and showed an ability to make adjustments when the situation called for it.

One of his standout moments came on a 2-yard touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars when he began running an out route, felt the coverage going toward the outside, and adjusted by sitting in the zone for an easy touchdown.

He also showed a similar feel running routes over the middle when he’d stop to give his quarterbacks an easy target instead of running into coverage. This skill is needed in the New Orleans offense since it used to be something Colston did so well.

Fleener also possesses the ability to run and succeed on a variety of routes. He caught 14 passes running curls, and also caught 14 passes on crossing and slant routes.

He also capably worked the seams and got open on go routes, pulling in one pass for a 57-yard touchdown against the Tennessee Titans in the season finale. But in terms of actual results, he did not have much success with them last season.

It wasn’t because he couldn’t get open, it was often the result of the quarterback not putting the ball on the mark. Two attempts to target Fleener on these routes in a game against Pittsburgh were intercepted.

Overall, there’s a lot like about the tight end. The Saints are making a major investment and betting Fleener can take the next step in his development and flourish in this offense.

The Saints brought Watson to back to life last season. Fleener has a lot more to offer. He just needs to take advantage of this opportunity.