INDIANAPOLIS – The season was five games old when Wes Saunders joined the Colts after being waived by Pittsburgh.
At 6-5, 270 pounds, Saunders was good-sized, and interim head coach Bruce Arians brought him in to help the attack.
“The first season was awesome. I got here in week six when the team was 2-3,” said Saunders. “I didn’t know what to expect. I saw a hungry, young group of guys who were ready to go. B.A. (Arians) brought me in and wanted me to block to contribute to the team. Whatever I was asked to do was what I tried to do. I was happy to contribute.”
Saunders had four receptions in Pittsburgh in 2011, and he had two with the Colts. The club’s tight ends combined to total 74 receptions. Saunders started three times when Fleener was injured, while all three tight ends opened late in the season against Tennessee.
This year, Saunders will be learning another new offense. New coordinator Pep Hamilton is installing a version of the West Coast Offense with the club, and Saunders approaches the opportunity eagerly.
“You have to have an open mind,” said Saunders. “This is the third offense I’ve learned in my third year. I had to learn under Todd Haley in Pittsburgh, then last year’s offense here. Now, it’s Coach Pep. It’s keeping me sharp, to say the least. Whatever I can do to contribute, that’s my goal. I want to be a jack of all trades.”
Saunders says learning quickly is a strength. He made the Steelers in 2011 as an undrafted free agent, and the lockout kept players from assimilating themselves with clubs until labor matters were resolved near the start of camp.
Saunders went from his couch in North Carolina to Pittsburgh’s camp in the blink of an eye.
He had to learn on the fly again last year with the Colts when coming over before the sixth game.
“I did feel comfortable. I felt the veterans in Pittsburgh taught me a lot,” said Saunders. “I was able to come over and play, especially when Coby (Fleener) went down. That was my second week here, and I had to fill in for him and the Tennessee win was a big one. It really boosted my confidence and made me feel like a veteran.”
Saunders feels the blocking aspect of his game can be a ticket to stay, though he wants to prove himself downfield, too.
“I think I can do both. I can block on the line. The blocking aspect of my game will help,” said Saunders. “I’ve been asked to come out of the backfield and pull. I feel like by working, I’ve gotten (everything) together. I want to do everything well.”
Chuck Pagano sees a young player possessing talent and who can be used in a number of ways.
“He’s a big, athletic guy, 275 pounds or so,” said Pagano. “He can move people and should be a good in-line blocker for us. He’s athletic and is a big target. I watched him from afar (when I was ill) and when I came back, I watched him run on the “show” team against our number one defense. Guys had a tough time covering him.
“He should really give us a boost in the run game. Just like last year, we’re going to use multiple tight end sets. He should be a huge factor in the run and pass game.”
Saunders notes the youth among tight ends and the offense in general. He appreciated it last year and liked the direction provided by the staff.
“It’s (the overall youth) a wild feeling for everyone. We know what we’re capable of. We’re waiting to put it all together,” said Saunders. “I liked coming in and having Dwayne here. We’re both from North Carolina and knew exactly who each other was. I played against him at Clemson. It was a little bit of a rivalry, but we quickly became brothers.
“There are different personalities in the room, and (TE Coach) Alfredo (Roberts) told me to contribute and do everything he asked. That’s what I tried to do. I tried to be a mentor to the young guys.”
“I feel he’s just scratching the surface of what he can do. When you look up the attributes of a tight end, you see 6-5, 265, athletic. That’s him,” said Allen. “He has long arms, soft hands, and he runs well. In my eyes, he has the tools to be a good tight end. I see him becoming a very good, talented and reliable player.”
Saunders is still a young pro. This stands as the first off-season where he truly can prepare for what he will face. The time prior to his rookie year evaporated. Last year’s work was negated when he was released. He targets the time ahead as a period of potential growth in the system.
“Yes, it will be. Coming in during the season, it’s hard to find your niche,” said Saunders. “Hopefully, I will use the off-season to better myself mentally and physically.
“I have learned the league is very unforgiving, and it doesn’t wait for anyone. I am thankful to be here. I want to make some noise this year.”
Fleener started 10 of 12 appearances, missing three games in the middle of the season with a shoulder injury. Fleener had six receptions for 82 yards in the Chicago opener, one of the best rookie debuts in club history at the position. He ranked fifth on the team with 26 receptions.
At 6-6, 252, Fleener is a solid target in the passing attack. He had receptions in 11 outings. He had five receptions exceeding 20 yards, with touchdowns at Detroit and versus Houston that factored into victories.
Allen opened every game, plus the playoff outing at Baltimore. Allen was fourth on the club with 45 receptions, snapping the franchise reception record for a rookie tight end. Allen’s three touchdowns tied for third on the club, and his 521 yards ranked fourth.
Cited for his maturity and durability by Ryan Grigson and Pagano, Allen caught passes in the last 15 games. He had eight receptions exceeding 20 yards. His touchdowns against Minnesota and Green Bay helped spur victories.