By Christopher DiMarino
There has been a lot of back and forth debate about Coby Fleener. There are people who agree that he could go in the first round. Some are skeptical that the Pittsburgh Steelers would draft a position of lesser need. Finally, there are those who don’t think he’s a possibility going at 24, because he’s a second round talent. I want to quickly address all of these concerns and do my best to be impartial considering I am in favor of him at 1.24.
The main fuel behind writing this article is to explain the mock draft and player analysis system, and how it has built up our biases. The first bias to consider is team need bias. As an example, there could be a great middle linebacker who is the 10th best player, but if teams 8-20 don’t need him, he would likely get mocked in the 20\’s. So if I was looking at him, I might think he’s a late first round talent so if he was to get drafted at 10 I would think that was a big reach.
If I read an overall position rank, I might get a different story. The worry with those is that you never know how much drop off there is. Take tight end for example. Fleener is ranked #1 and #2 is Dwayne Allen. That information tells me nothing about how far apart those two will be drafted. So since Fleener is an early second round projector, I might assume that the Steelers 2nd rounder would be a good place for Allen. Even if this is a good place for Allen, he might not be on the same athletic level as Fleener.
The next issue is the opposite, which is over pricing team need. Most mockers will only really consider players that each team needs, versus who they may grab because he’s the best available. So if there’s 5 offensive tackles that are talented, and 5-8 teams need a tackle before the Steelers, they likely won’t be projected to draft one. Even though logically other teams could be drawn to better available player and look to fill that need in later rounds.
Putting too much stock into combine performance and not enough stock into personality are biases as well. As I\’ve stated in previous articles, most of the decision of who to draft happens when the team meets the prospect. We\’ve recently come down from the roller coaster ride that was Dontari Poe. A “workout warrior” is a guy who excels at the combine in physical drills such as the 40 yard dash and bench. This needs to compliment a players skills and experience rather than acting as the sole selling point for him. A guy like Poe is a disgusting talent with immense speed for his size and peak strength, but without a good history on the field, teams are drafting a physically talented question mark. On the flip side, a guy who puts up huge numbers in college isn\’t always suited for the next level. Matt Spaeth is a good example of a player who had huge numbers in college and hasn\’t had his big break as a receiving option yet in the pros.
I hope that I placed at least some doubt that Fleener being projected as a late 1st/early second means he\’s not a worthwhile pick at 24. Now I\’ll get into numbers. This is a deep draft for tight ends, but few have the tools to be exceptional receivers at the next level. So Fleener\’s first hurdle to becoming a Steeler would be the Steelers feeling the need to draft a pass catching tight end. I still have no doubt with or without Fleener the Steelers will use a late round pick on a blocking tight end.
So to judge whether he\’s a first round talent, let\’s judge Fleener vs. the past early round tight ends. I\’ll be the first to admit that he doesn\’t look any more promising than the 2-3 hybrid tight ends who\’ve been drafted in the past 3+ seasons. He has similar large size (6\’6) and fast speed (sub 4.5s) as the Jared Cooks and Jimmy Grahams. Yet most of these tight ends were drafted long after the 1st round. I will focus on the past 3 years as it seems the hybrid tight end as really been picking up steam lately.
Two tight ends have gone in the first round in the past 3 years, Jermaine Gresham and Brandon Pettigrew. While both have made impacts, neither of them have panned out as sure fire stars (though Gresham appears to be on the cusp). Several were mid 2nd round picks (pick 2.10 on average) but only Rob Gronkowski has impressed from that group. However, Fleener shares little in common with these tight ends. Both Gresham and Pettigrew were heavier (260lbs) and both ran much slower 40 times (4.6 and 4.8 respectively). Gresham had an impressive college career at Oklahoma with a sophomore season of 518 yards and 11 tds and a junior season of 950 yds and 14 tds. Pettigrew had less stats but was viewed as more of a blocking option with his thick build.
Fleener had 434 yards and 7 tds in his junior year and 667 yards and 10 TDs in this past season. Fleener was the main target of Andrew Luck and as no other team member had more than 6 TDs and only one had more than 400 yards. However, there is always a chance that having a huge talent at quarterback inflated his value. Luck\’s accuracy is astounding and Stanford receivers typically didn\’t have to make difficult catches. Also consider the fact that Stanford didn\’t play too many hard teams as they just recently became a better dynasty.
Fleener\’s stock rising isn\’t a bad thing. Many fans want the Steelers to trade out of the first round and if the Indianapolis Colts are worried teams may take Fleener, the Steelers may be able to capitalize. I will be happy if the Steelers take him, or trade down. I just want to avoid the Steelers taking a player that will end up as a bust because he doesn\’t fill a need. I think given Fleener\’s combination of his pro day performance and college resume he is a known commodity. There are still question marks of whether he can refine his route running and learn to locate the soft spots in the complex NFL level zone defenses.
Let\’s see how he would fit into the Steelers offense. The biggest wild card for Fleener\’s value is Heath Miller. Typically drafting a player at the same position jeopardizes a veteran, but I think this would be a win-win. Heath can help develop Fleener and teach him the tools to be successful in the NFL. This isn\’t just limited to pass catching, but includes blocking. And Fleener will take the focus off of Heath, who will still retain a heavy number of reps as a blocker. And when teamed together, defenses will have a terrible time trying to contain 2 tight ends, especially if Heath uses delayed routes.
More and more, it seems like inside and underneath routes are being run by a different caliber of player. While Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace can stretch defenses, that leaves the inside to be carved up by tall tight ends and short route smart receivers. I think that Fleener could thrive as Todd Haley may want Ben Roethlisberger to take shots deep, but not be careless. A big target like Fleener would give him a safety valve to not have to go for the hail mary on every pass play.
To close, I got a little side tracked, but the purpose of this article was to both eliminate the illusion that mocks and player ranks are flawless, and to give further definition of Fleener\’s value. So while the Steelers don\’t have a pressing need at tight end, Fleener is without a doubt the only player not named Dont\’a Hightower who can have an immediate effect out of the likely first round options. While there are other tight ends available in this deep class, none provide the level of pass catching skill that Fleener does. I\’d like to learn a little more about Fleener\’s personality, but I think the big factor on whether he dons the Black and Gold is whether the Steelers feel they need to shore up the offense or defense.