Saints make first big splash in free agency by signing tight end Coby Fleener to five-year deal _lowres

Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener (80) runs the ball during the first half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper) ORG XMIT: OTK

New Orleans opened the 2015 free-agency period by trading away tight end Jimmy Graham in a move that shocked the NFL.

One year later, the Saints opened free agency by quietly making a big move to give Drew Brees a possible new star at the same position.

New Orleans signed former Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener to a five-year deal worth up to a reported $36 million Wednesday, a little less than two hours after the start of the NFL’s league year set off a frenzy of big-money signings around the NFL. With the move, the Saints instantly shored up a position that briefly seemed like it had been left thin by the departure of Benjamin Watson, whose career year at the age of 35 essentially made the absence of Graham an afterthought.

“Saints fans: I’m excited to join your outstanding team,” Fleener tweeted shortly after the signing was announced. “I can’t wait 2 get started working toward bringing a Championship to NOLA! #WhoDat.”

Fleener, 27, spent four years in Indianapolis establishing himself as a sure-handed, durable receiver who might be entering the prime years of his career. Despite sharing time with fellow tight end Dwayne Allen — who was so valuable that the Colts handed him a four-year, $29.4 million deal on Tuesday — Fleener caught more than 50 passes in each of the past three seasons, proving himself as a speedy option capable of stretching defenses vertically at the position.

A 6-foot-6, 251-pound target, Fleener turned in his best season in 2014, when he caught 51 passes for 774 yards and eight touchdowns. With the Colts’ passing game sent into a spiral by injuries to Andrew Luck last year, Fleener still managed to catch 54 passes for 491 yards and three touchdowns.

Now, Fleener joins a Saints offense that knows how to use the tight end. Despite an avalanche of speculation that the position wouldn’t be productive after the Saints dealt Graham to Seattle last year, Watson stepped into the prime pass-catching role and turned in the best season of his 12-year career, establishing career highs of 74 catches, 825 yards and six touchdowns.

New Orleans initially wanted to bring Watson back, but the veteran instead opted to take a two-year, $8 million deal to finish out his career with the Ravens.

Watson, who was named a team captain last year, cast a large shadow as a leader in the locker room and an example in the community, where his charitable efforts earned him recognition as a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

“Change is a part of life for an NFL family. Over my career we have been to three, now four different cities and each one has been harder than the last to depart from. Three years ago, we stepped into the unknown as God brought us to New Orleans,” Watson wrote in a statement released Wednesday. “We’ve thoroughly enjoyed living in this community and will always cherish the relationships and the welcoming hands that were extended to us since the day we arrived. Thank you, to the entire Saints organization for supporting my career the last three years and more importantly, for being such an advocate for all of our charitable and community endeavors.”

Fleener may not be able to fill Watson’s shoes completely.

With Allen around in Indianapolis, Fleener’s role was more pass-catcher than blocker, but the Saints re-signed veteran blocking tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to a three-year deal earlier this week, and Hoomanawanui could occupy the role Watson played in his first two seasons, when Graham handled most of the pass-catching duties. New Orleans also extended a $1.67 tender to restricted free agent Josh Hill, and the move to add Fleener makes tight end a position of depth heading into the rest of the offseason.

Fleener has the speed to stretch the field, and he’s been durable, playing in every game over the last three seasons after missing four games as a rookie.

Now, he’s got a chance to get the bulk of the tight-end targets in one of the league’s most prolific passing offenses.