INDIANAPOLIS -- The copycat nature of the NFL is routinely revealed on draft day. Teams will attempt to duplicate the success of their rivals by acquiring players with characteristics and skills that are prevalent in the game's biggest stars.
Last season, the tight end position fueled the success of several high-powered offenses and teams have made working the middle of the field a priority in their game plans. Consequently, 17 tight ends finished the season with 50-plus receptions, including Jimmy Graham (99) and Rob Gronkowski (90), who also topped the 1,000-yard mark.
Given their success and the changing dynamics of the pro passing game, scouts are on the hunt for the next difference maker at the position. As I watch the first day of workouts at the NFL Scouting Combine, I'm convinced Stanford's Coby Fleener will be that guy. Here are three reasons why:
1. Fleener possesses the size and speed to create problems in space.
The NFL's rule changes against contact and rough play in the passing game have created a significant advantage for receivers in space, especially for athletic tight ends with exceptional receiving skills. Fleener not only fits that category, but his combination of size, speed and athleticism will make him a difficult guard as a pro.
At 6-foot-6, 247 pounds, Fleener is too big for defensive backs on the perimeter and his speed makes him a tough guard for lumbering linebackers. He complements his natural speed and athleticism with a polished game that allows him to defeat defenders with subtle fakes at the top of routes. His deception and quickness results in significant separation out of the break, and he routinely finds a way to get open against man or zone coverage.
With more teams utilizing multiple spread formations with the tight end deployed at various alignments inside and outside the numbers, Fleener's impressive physical tools will be problematic for NFL defenders.
2. Fleener's experience in a pro-style offense will ease his transition to the NFL.
Fleener spent his entire career playing in an offensive system that features several elements incorporated into pro game plans, and that experience gives him a significant advantage entering the league. He understands basic concepts of the west coast offense used by the vast majority of the league, allowing him to play without hesitancy or uncertainty from Day 1.
In addition, Fleener enters the league with a great mastery of route running. He displays outstanding patience within the route and his clever utilization of head and shoulder fakes routinely puts defenders on their heels. His combination of balance, body control and explosiveness stood out on tape, and those traits were confirmed when I watched him during the position workout.
Fleener displayed an exceptional burst off the ball, but he remained under control throughout the route. He didn't rush or cut off his route before the prescribed depth, and his attention to detail reveals his discipline and awareness.
In addition, Fleener has shown outstanding hands, ball skills and concentration, and he is one of the best pass catchers at the position. Given the number of check marks in the positive column, it is hard for me to imagine Fleener being anything but a difference maker as a pro.
3. Fleener's exceptional college production will translate to pro success.
When compiling a profile on a prospect, I love to check out his statistics to see if I can spot a trend that is sustainable on the next level. As I look at Fleener's career stat sheet, I believe his robust yards per catch average and his receiving touchdowns will translate into immediate success as a pro.
Fleener finished his Cardinal career averaging 16.1 yards per catch, including 19.6 in 2011. This not only reveals his big play ability, but it suggests he might be a better vertical weapon or runner after the catch than most expect at the position. For comparison's sake, Clemson's Dwayne Allen and Georgia's Orson Charles averaged, 11.6 and 14.6, respectively.
In looking at his remarkable ability to put the ball in the paint, Fleener's 18 career touchdowns, including 17 over the past two seasons, make him one of the most prolific scorers at the position in recent memory. Although Allen (12) and Charles (10) have also demonstrated extraordinary scoring ability, Fleener's penchant for playmaking should attract the attention of scouts and coaches coveting difference makers.
Rob Gronkowski surprisingly emerged as a Pro Bowl selection in his second season, but a look at his college production (75 receptions for 1,197 receiving yards with 16 touchdowns in two season) suggested he could become a special player as a pro. If Fleener's numbers are any indication of his pro potential, then the league's next great playmaking tight end could be on the way.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.