The 2013 season saw a tight end fallout across the NFL. Nearly every team was impacted by some sort of tight end injury, whether it was Dennis Pitta's hip issues, Rob Gronkowski's continued ailments, or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers losing their top-three options within the first month of the season.
The Indianapolis Colts were also impacted by the tight end apocalypse, losing the promising Dwayne Allen for most of the 2013 season due to injury. Luckily for Andrew Luck and the Indy offense, Coby Fleener was still around, and shouldered the load for the tight ends on offense.
But as we approach the 2014 season, with all signs pointing to a return for Allen, which tight end in Indianapolis is the one to own in fantasy football? For that, we'll have to go back in time to a peaceful era before the tight end rapture.
Before the Apocalypse
In 2012, the Colts used their duo of then-rookie tight ends Fleener and Allen to good effect, targeting them just over eight times per game, with roughly four looks going to each player in every contest.
Allen proved to be the better tight end, according to our metrics. He had a higher Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) total than Fleener, and had a better per-target average of Reception NEP than his teammate as well. He did play in more games, and see more targets overall, but the advantage in per-target NEP shows that he was generally the more productive player when he caught the ball.
But being a more efficient tight end doesn't automatically mean Allen was any better for fantasy football than Fleener. Allen is generally considered to be a better blocker and all-around player than his teammate, but Fleener has a three-inch height advantage on Allen, which translates well into scoring touchdowns.
But in 2012 (in a very small sample size), Allen caught more passes overall in the red zone, and had more touchdowns when the Colts were inside the 20 (according to ESPN's splits).
So he was the better player in 2012, and saw more production in the red zone. That's why his injury in 2013 was so frustrating for what the Colts wanted to do on offense.
Back to School
Offensive Coordinator Pep Hamilton followed Andrew Luck to the NFL to run the Indianapolis offense in 2013, having previously served as a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Stanford. And during his time at Stanford, the Cardinal used tight ends as often as any team in the nation.
In 2011, Fleener and fullback/tight end Ryan Hewitt both saw 34 receptions, while Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo caught 27 and 25 passes respectively. This meant that the third, fourth, fifth and seventh leading receivers on the team were tight ends. These four players were also 80 percent of the team's top-five touchdown producers in the passing game, with Griff Whalen representing the only non-tight end to finish among the five best in touchdown catches in 2011.
In 2012, with Hamilton still out west with Stanford and Luck and Fleener in Indianapolis, the Cardinal continued to favor tight ends on offense, as Zach Ertz led the team in every receiving category, and Toilolo came in second in scoring and third in yards.
When Hamilton arrived in Indianapolis in 2013 to work with Luck and Fleener again, he had to be thrilled to have Dwayne Allen on board as well. But with Allen's injury, the Colts were forced to use less of the tight end position as they'd hoped, with Stanley Havili getting 21 targets, but no other adequate targets emerging to help Fleener.
With Allen back in the fold for 2014, what can we expect from the Indianapolis offense? If Pep Hamilton and Andrew Luck's history can tell us anything, it's that we should expect plenty of looks to tight ends, possibly even more than we saw in 2012 under Bruce Arians.
But Allen is clearly the better overall player, as he's more well-rounded in the non-pass-catching aspects of being a tight end, and was more efficient as a receiver while healthy.
This chart shows what Allen would have done last season if it were him instead of Fleener playing as the top tight end for 16 games.
|Player||Receptions||Reception NEP||Targets||Rec NEP/Target|
|Allen 2013 (Projected)||59||54.62||87||0.63|
If Allen kept up his pace as a rookie, and was given the same amount of targets last year as Fleener was, we could have expected a better season overall than the one produced by Luck's college teammate. But is that enough to separate the two for fantasy purposes?
Fleener will always have the height advantage, and was a dominant red zone option in college, meaning he poses a constant threat of robbing touchdowns from Allen when the Colts get deep into enemy territory.
So while Allen is the better player in real football, it's a dead heat in terms of fake football. Allen is the safer pick in general, as getting good players on your fantasy team is never a bad idea, but Fleener's presence will be a constant drain on his ceiling as a productive tight end for fantasy.
With that in mind, our FireFactor rankings (found on our customizable Fantasy Football Cheat Sheet) for a standard 12-team league have both Fleener and Allen below-replacement level among tight ends, with Allen ranking 20th and Fleener 23rd. Neither, therefore, should be very high on your fantasy radar, but if you're in a deep enough league and want to roster a backup tight end, Allen is the guy to get.