Coby Fleener Is a Late-Round Fantasy Football Steal in 2017

Coby Fleener was a bust in his first year with the Saints, but opportunity is wide open in the Big Easy.

I used to hate vegetables. Spinach, brussels sprouts, broccoli; I’d loathe eating green things every time they found their way to my plate. My parents always reminded me that they were good for me, that they would help me “grow big and strong”. I didn’t care unless they had cheese microwaved onto them.

Sometimes we are told non-stop how we should do something, how it’s better for us, how we need to trust others’ advice on the healthy solution. Those words of wisdom are often right, but sometimes, we have to come to the conclusion on our own.

For instance, I could talk your ear off about how silly it would be to draft a fantasy football tight end early this year, given the fact that players like the New Orleans Saints’ Coby Fleener are sitting late in the draft and have top-five positional upside. You’d be well within your rights to scoff at me if I simply said that, which is why I’m going to show you what you’re missing from your fantasy diet by ignoring filling and enriching players like Fleener.

How Can He Be a Late-Round Steal?

“But, Joe,” you say, “I’ve been down this road before. I was a huge fan of Coby Fleener coming to the Saints last year, and I got burned. How am I supposed to trust him now?”

It can be tough to see results from a philosophy change right away, if you’re going to sustain this new mindset for the long-term. The Fleener Diet I’m proposing isn’t some simple fad for 2017; this is something you should shape your whole fantasy life around going forward, starting with a little introduction to a psychological concept called “recency bias”.

Recency bias, in a nutshell, is the idea that what happened most recently is the thing that is most likely to happen in the future: a player had a down year in 2016? According to recency bias, they’re likely to be bad again in 2017 – even if they’ve been good every season prior. This is dangerous in fantasy football is because it tells you to ignore the real, practical factors and to only focus on the previous outcomes.

Why This Matters for His Fantasy Value

We all thought Fleener was going to be Jimmy Graham, Part Deux when he signed with New Orleans in the 2016 offseason, but he turned out to be more trompe l’oeil than magnifique during his first year in the Big Easy. We can see that both through box score statistics and numberFire’s signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Fleener’s 2016 targets, his share of team targets, yards-per-target, touchdown rate, and Reception NEP per target compared to that of the Saints’ top tight ends the five years prior.

Year Full Name Targets Targ % Yds/Targ TD% Reception NEP/Targ
2011 Jimmy Graham 149 21.72% 8.79 7.38% 0.73
2012 Jimmy Graham 135 19.37% 7.27 6.67% 0.67
2013 Jimmy Graham 142 20.61% 8.56 11.27% 0.84
2014 Jimmy Graham 125 18.17% 7.11 8.00% 0.59
2015 Benjamin Watson 110 15.76% 7.50 5.45% 0.72
2016 Coby Fleener 82 11.71% 7.70 3.66% 0.67

With a proper workload, it was reasonable to expect a strong campaign from Fleener in New Orleans. Instead, the Saints and fantasy owners saw the worst production by nearly every metric in the last half-decade.

Or was it?

Finding the Positives

Sure, when we zero in on Fleener’s 0.67 Reception NEP per target – sandwiched between the league-average of 0.62 and below the Saints’ average of 0.71 – we see a lackluster value as compared to Graham and even Benjamin Watson.

Keep in mind, however, that Fleener posted an above league-average rate while snaring just three touchdowns (touchdown receptions add significantly more expected points than other catches). With a similar yards-per-target rate but with three more touchdowns, Watson's Reception NEP per target was much higher.

In addition, Fleener was sustaining just a 60.98 percent catch rate, and has admitted that he had trouble soaking up the Saints’ playbook in his first season. It makes sense, therefore, that his target share would plummet to nearly half of Graham’s peak in this offense. Removing his first two weeks as he adjusted and his drop-off in the final month of the season – Brees’ completion rate dropped by five percentage points while his touchdown rate fell by two percentage points from Weeks 14-17 – Fleener was on pace for 819 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. With a year under his belt in the New Orleans passing attack, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where Fleener is more comfortable in the offense and sees this rate of workload once again.

Even a 15 percent share of the passing game would put Fleener at 105 targets, and at 7.70 yards per target, that'd put him over 800 yards for the season. Even better, Rotoviz’s Game Splits App confirms that 16 of Fleener’s 20 career touchdowns have come in games when he sees six targets or more.

And how can we be so sure Fleener will earn that kind of work again? Brandin Cooks was traded to the New England Patriots this offseason, leaving behind 117 targets from 2016. The tight end only needs 25 or so of those to reach Watson’s 2015 target share, and when Cooks got less work, it was already good news for Fleener.

The table below shows Fleener’s targets per game when Cooks had below eight targets, versus when he topped that.

2016 Cooks Targets 8 or Fewer 9 or More
Fleener TD per Game 0.25 0.12
Fleener Targets per Game 5.50 4.75
Fleener Target Share 13.13% 11.24%

Without Cooks hogging looks, Fleener’s target share already swelled a fair amount in 2016, so there’s a good chance he sees a lot more work in 2017.

Our models project him for 620 receiving yards and 3.62 touchdowns on 53 receptions, the 15th-best fantasy projection for a tight end, but this is definitely his midpoint. The upside is there, and Fleener is going in the late 14th round of fantasy leagues as the 17th tight end off the board by FF Calculator in standard 12-team leagues – behind rookies O.J. Howard and David Njoku, as well as behind 10 team defenses.

There is top-tier upside for Fleener in a great offense for the upcoming season. Forget about the temptingly sweet options at the top of the tight end shelf and grab the hearty value he presents later in your draft. You’ll thank me – and yourself – later.