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TE Coby Fleener remains a 'work in progress' with Saints

METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton doesn't usually go around throwing out fantasy-football recommendations with his players, like he did with rookie New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas on Tuesday.

Case in point -- that kind of praise has been harder to come by for new Saints tight end Coby Fleener.

"I'd say it's an ongoing progression," Payton said of Fleener. "I think, man, there are some plays that are real good, and then there's some plays where we've gotta be a little more detailed. And that's something that I know he’s gotta work on.

"...So I would say it's still a work in progress, and yet there have been some good signs and some things that just jump out at you like, 'Hey, we gotta clean that up.'"

Fleener had one of those "real good" plays during Tuesday's practice, when he broke wide open down the middle of the field for a touchdown catch of about 50 yards in a full-team drill.

But comments like the one Payton made have been common throughout the summer, with both the coach and quarterback Drew Brees being somewhat lukewarm in their praise of Fleener. Brees often explains that they're still getting a feel for one another.

To Fleener's credit, he fully admits that he doesn't have all the intricacies of the playbook down as much as he would like yet.

"Absolutely," Fleener said. "Some of the challenges for me have just been learning a new offense -- and really getting that play and translating it quickly into an action."

Fleener was asked if people expect him to be a quicker study because he went to Stanford.

"Fair question," Fleener said with a smile. "I think there's a natural tendency to say that, just as I put pressure on myself that, yeah, absolutely I should know every single position.

"...It's been challenging. I think if you gave me some time and I had a grease board to write it up on, it's not that bad. But when you're going from here to there and you have to execute within a split-second, that's when the repetitions come into play. And I think the repetitions over time will be very helpful."

Fleener should still be very productive in the Saints' offense. Even if he has to fight through the occasional mental flub, two or three big plays per game will produce big numbers.

And all of the things that attracted fantasy owners to Fleener on the day they signed him still ring true. Since Payton and Brees arrived in 2006, the Saints rank second in the NFL in tight end targets, behind only the Dallas Cowboys, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Last season, when veteran Benjamin Watson replaced Jimmy Graham as New Orleans' primary tight end, Watson posted the best numbers of his 12-year career (74 catches, 825 yards, six touchdowns).

I still like Fleener to approach numbers such as 900 yards and seven TDs, but fantasy owners should be reminded not to get too carried away in their expectations for the fifth-year pro, who never had more than 54 catches, 774 yards or eight touchdowns in his first four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.

Now whether or not the Saints were wise to spend so much money on Fleener in free agency (five years, $36 million) when they had more pressing needs remains a big question mark -- just as it was five months ago. But that blockbuster deal shows what kind of potential they see in the 6-foot-6, 251-pounder.

As for Fleener, he seems happy with the fit he chose in New Orleans. When asked what has been the best part so far, he said, "I think for me, constantly seeing things out of Drew that are still amazing."

"Having been in the NFL with an outstanding quarterback, multiple outstanding quarterbacks," Fleener said of former Colts such as Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck, "to see his arm talent and to see how smart he is, it still amazes me every single day."