Not since Vernon Davis have we seen a tight-end prospect with as much quickness, speed and agility as Coby Fleener. Davis is an elite player, particularly after a couple of amazing playoff games, but Fleener has that same elite speed while also possessing the long build that modern NFL offenses covet.
In a run-first Stanford offense, Fleener exhibited great technique and blocking-ability in the running-game, and a cerebral sense of where to be in the passing game. He will be a three-down TE in the NFL, with that rare ability to outrun a safety in the seam, or even a CB on the outside (Fleener ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at Stanford's pro day).
Even if Fleener is well-covered, his 6'6", 247-pound frame will allow a QB to throw him a jump ball or a back-shoulder throw -- two throws that have become increasingly popular among teams with larger receivers due in part to the rules about defenseless players and illegal contact.
In Fleener, you have a red-zone stud. And right now, that is perhaps the only thing the Panthers' passing game is missing. Greg Olsen is good in the red-zone, but he is not dominant. Steve Smith can score from anywhere on the field, but he is limited by his size when the offense gets inside the 20-yard line. Our other WRs and TEs are still very much unproven, particularly as red-zone receivers. Fleener could be one of the final pieces to an offense that was already 7th in yards and 5th in scoring.
In measuring the move further, we'll talk about Fleener's college career, his physical attributes, speculate about where he would fit with the Panthers and finally postulate on what it would take to trade up from #40 to, say, #25.
This and other ramblings, after the jump...In his four-year career at Stanford, Fleener caught 96 passes for 1,543 yards with 18 touchdowns.
2008 as a Freshman: caught 13 passes for 176 yards with no TDs.
2009 as a Sophomore: caught 21 passes for 266 yards and 1 TD.
2010 as a Junior: caught 28 passes for 434 yards and 7 TDs.
2011 as a Senior: caught 34 for 667 yards and 10 TDs.
This production is not astounding, but keep in mind Stanford used a pro-style, run-first, smash-mouth offense that used extra lineman as TEs in the running game as well as blockers in play-action. Fleener's opportunities were limited, but he certainly made the most of them, with his average reception going for 16 yards. That is a crazy number for a TE.
What may be most intriguing about this prospect is that during the final two years of his career, Fleener became a scorer. And he scored in a variety of ways. He beat people with speed, he beat them after the catch and he beat them in the red-zone. Not only that, but Fleener shows an understanding of timing and route-running in the short and intermediate passing game.
As I mentioned before, Fleener is impressive in the running-game. Fleener consistently takes his man out of the play. He has great technique and uses his height to create more leverage. He is still improving as a blocker, but is more than adequate already.
In summation, Coby Fleener looks like an elite prospect capable of doing everything on a very high level.
The TE position is a puzzling one when it comes to recent drafts, as teams have found elite TEs in the second and third rounds. For example, Jimmy Graham was a late third-round pick. Rob Gronkowski was picked in the middle of the second round. Those two guys are arguably the best TEs in the league along with Vernon Davis, but both were considered raw and unpolished coming out of college (hence their draft positioning). Part of their rapid ascension to the league's elite is the QBs they both play with. Another reason for their immediate success is their ideal size, with both being over 6'6" and 250lbs. Fleener is the same size, but also has wide-receiver like speed. To give you the run-down on the rest, he has 33 1/2 inch arms, 10" hands, and did 27 reps at 225lbs. His agility-drill times at his pro day would have been top 5 for all TEs at the Combine.
It appears that the Panthers have decided to let TE Jeremy Shockey walk in free agency, so they will be looking to replace his production as one of the starting TEs. Fleener could take the same 37 receptions Shockey caught for the Panthers in 2011 but potentially double the yardage and triple the touchdown output (Shockey gained 455 yards and scored four TDs).
Again, if the Panthers are missing a weapon on offense, it is a red-zone specialist. Brandon LaFell and David Gettis are two WRs with decent size and good hands, but you would not consider either of them dominant red-zone targets. The top two TEs on the roster right now are Greg Olsen and Gary Barnidge. Olsen, like we said previously, is a great player and is good in the red-zone, but he does not command a double team or extra coverage inside the 20-yard line. I like Barnidge, but despite him being in the league for four years, we know little about him as a TE since he's spent most of his time on special teams.
Adding Fleener into the mix would give the Panthers a good stable or TEs, and it would afford them some flexibility. with Fleener inside, Olsen and/or Barnidge could lineup in the slot or as outside receivers. Neither Olsen or Barnidge are as good as Fleener in the running-game, so the Panthers find themselves an upgrade there.
The move makes a lot of sense because it fills multiple needs and saves roster spots:
Olsen could act as a slot receiver and get one-on-one matchups with safetys on the outside.
Barnidge would continue to be a great special teams player in addition to filling Hartsock's role as a blocker in the goal-line package. He could obviously rotate in offensively as well.
Olsen's speed on the outside, along with the extra attention Fleener would require in the seams would pull some coverage away from Steve Smith and open everything up.
Rob Chudzinski loves TEs. They are arguably the focal point of the offense. Having two great-to-elite TEs on the roster would probably be his preference -- similar to what New England has in Hernandez and Gronkowski. But what would it take to move up 15 spots from #40 to Denver's #25 pick so the Panthers could draft Fleener?
Well, the 25th pick is worth 720 points on the Draft Pick Trade Value Chart found here. The 40th pick is worth 500 points. That is a difference of 220 points.
To close the gap, the Panthers could offer next year's 2nd round pick, which would be worth anywhere from 580 to 270 points, based on the Panthers' record in 2012. They would probably ask the Broncos for next years' 4th rounder as compensation, which ranges from 112 to 44 points, based on Denver's 2012 record. It doesn't have to be any more complicated than that.
So, the Panthers would spend the 40th pick and what might likely be a pick in the late 50s next year for the best TE prospect in the last seven years.