INDIANAPOLIS –The dynamics of the Colts' offense took multiple hits early last year when four starters were lost for the season in the first three games, while Reggie Wayne followed in week seven.
Coby Fleener was impacted directly when Dwayne Allen went down after the opener, and a year where Chuck Pagano predicted Fleener would double his production came true.
"You never want to see any of your teammates go down, whether it's someone in your position group or on the team," said Fleener. "It did make me take on a little more of the load, but that's why we practice."
Fleener did not miss a game and caught passes in 15 outings, upping his reception total from 26 to 52 from his rookie year, while 608 yards and four TDs ranked second among Colts receivers.
"We saw Coby really take the next step," said Chuck Pagano. "When Dwayne went down, Coby's role had to expand, not only as a pass-catcher, but as a blocker. It's something Coby really (embraced).
"Alfredo (Roberts) did a great job with Coby (**click here for Film Breakdown of Fleener at Arizona**). Physically, he's not the 270-, 280-pound 'Y' tight end on end-line blocking, but he worked at it and got better in the run game. In the pass game, he made big plays for us. He's a bright, bright guy who works at his craft."
Maturation for players often leaps between years one and two. It was true in Fleener's case as well as others like him who arrived in 2012.
"Any time (you're around) you gain a level of comfort with the offense, the people around you, the building, understanding what your teammates lining up next to you are thinking," said Fleener. "Any time you do that, you become better. That's why you understand all the positions.
"If T.Y. (Hilton) needed to step in and play some of the tight end reps, I'm sure he'd know what to do. Maybe not so much in the blocking portion, but the routes. It's an offense where we can take a receiver from one spot and move him to the next."
Fleener looks physically different this year, a notion he downplayed, "Maybe a few more chest hairs (smiles)."
What is soft-sold by Fleener has not escaped Allen's notice.
"His body has grown. Coby's always been a guy who has needed to eat a lot in order to gain weight," said Allen. "He's done a good job this off-season of taking a holistic approach to his body.
"He looks faster out there. I didn't think it would be possible for him to be any faster than he was at 4.4 coming out (of college). He looks more explosive, loose (and) flexible. We'll see how the spring and fall goes, but I'm looking for a big year out of him."
Excelling as a pro is more than doing it on the field. Allen was drafted a round behind Fleener in 2012 and projected maturity right away. Allen says Fleener has emerged dramatically among tight ends.
"He's really taken a leadership role in the room. Having the most game experience, he's lending his insights on a lot of the routes and concepts to help the other guys," said Allen. "He's really taken the bull by the horns in stepping up and being a leader in our room."
Fleener had a leg up on most teammates by having prior exposure to the offense under Pep Hamilton at Stanford, but it was his implementation that spurred the leap.
"Having played in the system helped with play calls, (and) we saw a lot of growth in Coby. He gained a ton of confidence," said Pagano. "Where he made a big step was from the practice standpoint. He really learned how to practice.
"His weekly preparation in classroom and practice translated into his play. We always say, 'You're going to play like you practice,' and Coby became a much better practice player. It showed up on game day."
Fleener says this time of year is beneficial for the mental side of the game. Players never really leave the physical part of it much once the season ends, and this the time to hone timing and fortify relationships.
"Hopefully, I can carry more and more of the load, become a stronger player and build trusts with the coaching staff, the quarterbacks and with my teammates," said Fleener. "Off-season training is always the time you build for the season, the time you become a better player. (This) is a good period for me, but it's not over yet. We still have some work to do.
"Every year is exciting in its own way. This year, I think expectations for us are going to be pretty darned high, compared to the last couple of years. It's our job to ignore those, but still exceed them. My expectation is to help the team win any way I can."