With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Stanford tight end Coby Fleener, one of Andrew Luck's primary targets as Luck became the next Peyton Manning. Fleener isn't as big a name, but he plays a big game -- in an era where tight ends rule the day more than ever before, Fleener is a great hybrid between the in-line blockers and the big receivers who masquerade as tight ends in spread concepts. In each of his last three years for the Cardinal, Fleener increased his catches, receiving yards, yards per catch, and touchdowns -- in 2011, he brought down 10 touchdowns with just 34 catches, and he led the PAC-12 with 19.6 yards per catch last season. At his Pro Day, Fleener ran wind-aided times under 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash; he looked as quick and defined as any big receiver. He's got all the tools required at his position for NFL success; the question is, how productive can he be?
In a less conservative offense than Stanford's, Fleener might have brought in 60 catches per year, and based on his game tape, it's pretty easy to project him doing so in the NFL. Without question, he's the best tight end in this draft class, and he brings to mind the best tight end in the NFL.
Pros: If there's one word that comes to mind when watching Fleener's tape, it's practiced -- as a receiver in the slot or inline, he displays fine fundamentals when it comes to getting open and staying available as a target through the play. Shows a nice hand-strike to get free from linebackers and defensive backs who try to tie him up at the line; press coverage will not slow him up too often. Outstanding hands-catcher (doesn't block the ball with his body) with an array of fairly ridiculous highlight plays. Doesn't have top-level, elite speed for the position (not at the level of Aaron Hernandez or Jimmy Graham), but gets good quickness off the line most of the time. Not a one-speed player; he's dynamic up the seam on longer routes and can break away from safeties at times. Has a second gear in space and knows how to use it. Yards after catch monster who refuses to go down without an extreme fight -- arm-tacklers will not have good days against this guy.
Fleener can be a nightmare for linebackers on slants and crosses because he builds up speed easily and gets upfield with authority. Will cause an extra defender to commit on every play -- if you give Fleener a free play in the short areas, he can take it to the house pretty easily. Surprisingly elusive in space -- he'll juke safeties and stay in line for the timing catch. Outstanding red zone and end zone target who will beat multiple defenders and bring the ball down in heavy, compressed traffic -- Andrew Luck went out of his way to high-point throws to Fleener at Stanford's Pro Day and prove to NFL personnel that in any offense, he'll bring in more than his share of touchdowns.
Cons: Fleener is a willing and able blocker who will sometimes take on two defenders before releasing into a route, but he's not a dominant drive-blocker in the traditional tight end sense. He tends to chip and go more than he engages and pushes back; as a result, his blocking is inconsistent and not always effective. This seems like something that could be corrected. Fleener could be more crisp in some of his short-area routes -- while he's tough in traffic, he needs to cut routes more consistently. Tends to round off quicker in and out routes.
Conclusion: The Gronkowski comparison seems in line, with one major caveat -- Gronk is the best blocking tight end in the NFL, and Fleener still has miles to go before he's at that level. What Fleener brings to the NFL than even Gronkowski couldn't at first is the experience of being a major, every-down target in an offense proven successful at the professional level. Between Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck, Fleener was a major target for the best college quarterback in recent memory, in an offense designed (and used after the coach's departure to San Francisco) to be as mistake-proof as possible. Neither man would continue to rely on Fleener as they did if he was anything less than a consistent threat on the field, and the NFL quarterback throwing to Fleener should feel the same sense of security sooner than later.
Pro Comparison: Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
More Shutdown 50:
#23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama | #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC | #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska | #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson | #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford | #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech | #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy