Coby Fleener probably would have scripted a different introduction.
After last week’s loss to the New York Giants, the game in which he dropped a pass and made two receptions on eight targets, he classified the performance as a “bad day at the office.” It seems fair to assume that he and the Saints weren’t envisioning many of those when he signed a five-year, $36 million deal to join the team this offseason.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean his future is going to be littered with days like that. It’s a process. The situation needs more time on task, as the Saints like to say. And, besides, it might be worth noting that Ben Watson had five catches for 31 yards at this point last season on nine targets. He finished the year with 74 catches for 825 yards.
So, no, the Saints aren’t worried. Not after two weeks. That doesn’t mean the team is content with how things have started with Fleener, who has three receptions for 35 yards. Coach Sean Payton said earlier this week that he’d like to see more consistency from his tight end. But no one is ringing an alarm or throwing their hands up at this early juncture.
“Listen, I’ve had more time with guys like Brandin Cooks, Willie (Snead), Brandon Coleman, even Michael Thomas at this point because Coby was banged up a little in the offseason,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “The more time that we get together, the more the confidence builds, the more you find everyone’s role in all of this. I’m confident as we progress here that he’s going to be an even bigger part of the offense.”
Payton spent Wednesday watching every third down the Saints ran during this season and last season. The team has faced 24 third downs and has converted on only seven (29.2 percent). Last year, the team converted on 47.7 percent of its third downs, which was the best rate in the NFL.
What Payton noticed is that the team has been facing good, tight man-to-man coverage in those situations. The coaching staff will look to find ways it can help the team separate from the defense through the use of its formations, but this has been one of the areas where Fleener has faced issues early on.
He’s been targeted three times on third down, which ranks second behind Snead, who has four targets, but the tight end failed to catch any of the passes. One of them resulted in a drop on a corner route against the New York Giants against tight coverage. Another against the Giants fell incomplete after Fleener was bumped by the cornerback and fell to the ground. The third one, against the Oakland Raiders, fell incomplete against good coverage.
Fleener should be able to help the team once he gets going and settles in. He caught 12 of 19 targets on third down for the Colts last season, though the issue is not just unique to him. The whole team has struggled in these situations.
But Fleener knows more is expected of him, not just on third down, but overall. He feels the same way.
“I understand that people have high expectations here and they should,” Fleener said. “Drew is an outstanding quarterback, a Hall of Famer, and they should continue to have high expectations of this team and of me.”
Brees said he feels like things are going to turn around for Fleener. Maybe this is the week for it to happen. The Atlanta Falcons have allowed 15 targets on 16 targets against tight ends for 138 yards and three touchdowns.
But that’s not why Brees thinks things are going to change. He said the more time he works with Fleener, the more comfortable the two players become with one another, and that the time on task is going to pay off soon.
The two are still getting there. The Saints need to figure out what Fleener does best versus man and zone coverage. Unlike with Jimmy Graham, who was automatic up the seams, Brees and Fleener are still working to figure each other out and eventually they, too, might end up with a preferred route. Right now, it’s a work in progress.
The most commonly run routes by Fleener are currently outs, quick outs or curls (a combined 39). But his targets have come on a variety of routes, including corner (0-2), curl (1-3), crossing (0-1), out (0-3), flat (1-1), seam (0-1) and sword (1-1) routes.
“We’re able to get more specific every day,” Brees said. “That’s the thing during the offseason; everything is kind of general. It’s the general form of the offense and concepts and that kind of thing. It’s not until you get down to real game planning that you get down to some of the nitty gritty and specific.”
The Saints bet big on Fleener this offseason, and they still think their tight end will pay dividends. It might not look great after two weeks, but that’s not nearly enough time for the picture to come into focus.