Finley and His Future
by Mike Conklin
February 24, 2013
Two months ago, it appeared that Jermichael Finley's days in Green Bay were numbered.
The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published a story by Bob McGinn in mid-December that suggested the Packers were ready to move on without the valuable-yet-vexing tight end.
"Barring a shocking turn of events in the next month or so," wrote McGinn, "tight end Jermichael Finley is playing his fifth and final season for the team." The elder statesman of the Packers beat even went on to write, "There is no way the Packers will pick up the second half of the two-year, $14 million contract they gave Finley (last) February, according to sources."
The story was published with only three games left in the regular season, so it did not leave much time for that "shocking turn of events" to take place. Surprisingly enough, however, it appears that the winds in Green Bay have shifted.
Finley finished the season with a flourish, and even showed glimpses of being the difference-making player he had been earlier in his career. He was a key part of the offense during those final three regular season games, racking up 18 receptions for 203 yards. His strong finish enabled him to break the team record for most single season receptions by a tight end. And even though that short period of time may only offer a relatively small sample size, it was also encouraging that Finley kept his head down and did his job during the team's playoff run. While the Packers had to deal with the distraction of Greg Jennings' sister publicly ripping Aaron Rodgers via social media, Finley quietly soldiered on. No drama. No ill-timed comments. No unwelcome headlines from Finley or any of his associates.
Now a couple months removed, the Packers have already bid farewell to Donald Driver and Charles Woodson. Greg Jennings' departure in free agency also seems imminent. But the tide seems to have turned in the "should-he-stay-or-should-he-go" debate about Finley. When Mike McCarthy spoke almost glowingly about Finley during his season-ending press conference, it almost seemed as if he was sending the first subtle message that they Packers may keep him after all.
"I really felt Jermichael Finley was a different man, a different player from the bye week on," said McCarthy in January. "I had an opportunity to talk to him about that at length in his exit interview, so I feel very good about the way he finished the year."
In a recent JSOnline.com podcast, Bob McGinn even appeared to sense a climate change in Green Bay regarding Finley.
"I firmly believe that he changed some minds out there," said McGinn. "He was gone. They had made that decision to move on, whether trade or release, but the guy rallied down the stretch and he was a good tight end the last eight to ten weeks."
Before things turned around and Finley became the "changed man" that McCarthy described, he was off to a pretty rough start. During the first five weeks of the season, he dropped five passes and lost a fumble. He didn't have more than two receptions in any of the four games leading up to the bye week. And if that weren't enough, his agent grabbed headlines when he tweeted that Aaron Rodgers wasn't a great leader.
But after Finley's strong finish, the feelings around the team have changed. These days, Bob McGinn isn't the only seasoned veteran on the Packers beat that thinks Finley now has a good chance of staying for another year. ESPNMilwaukee.com's Jason Wilde suggested that the idea Finley would be let go almost seems like a stretch at this point.
"Listening to McCarthy speak Friday afternoon at the NFL Scouting Combine, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Packers releasing Finley," wrote Wilde. "McCarthy spoke as if it’s a no-brainer that Finley will return."
Some of McCarthy's comments repeated what he had said earlier, talking about how Finley had turned things around in the second half of the season. But he also delved into the topic of how much Finley's presence means to opposing defenses.
"When you look at Jermichael and you go on the other side of the ball or you talk to any of the defensive guys that played against him, he’s a matchup challenge for defenses," said McCarthy. "I think his best routes are when we’re attacking the middle of the field with him. I think he’s unique that way. Big target, excellent in the red zone. I thought he played much better with the ball in his hand after the catch. I think it was clearly his best year, particularly on the 2-yard drag routes and things like that. I was very pleased with the way Jermichael played there in the second half, and he improved a number of different areas of his game."
Those do not sound like the words of a coach describing a player the team is preparing to release. McCarthy also talked about how Finley battled through a shoulder injury that may have affected his play. By all indications, it now appears that Finley is going to stay.
Though it may be of minor importance, there is one other often overlooked benefit to the decision to keep Finley for one more season if that is what the Packers indeed choose to do. If it turns out that the Packers decide to move on without Finley a year from now, he will have finished out his contract and would be an unrestricted free agent. He would only be 26 years old at that point (27 by the time the 2014 season starts), and would likely be a very attractive candidate for many teams.
If he signs elsewhere, Finley should be able to command a lucrative contract. Although it would be difficult to see a player with Finley's unique skill set leave at such a young age, the Packers would in theory be able to reap a fairly high compensatory draft pick in return. Salary is the single biggest factor when the NFL determines the value of compensatory selections.
While something like that may not be a primary concern for the Packers when deciding whether to keep Finley and pay him the $8.25 million due him this year, the fact of the matter is that if Finley were cut this offseason the Packers would not get anything for him. If he ends up leaving after next year, they should. Even if it is only a fourth round compensatory draft pick, it would benefit the team.
As their head coach and general manager repeat over and over again, the Packers are a draft-and-develop team. As a result Ted Thompson highly values his draft picks, as well he should. After all, Josh Sitton was selected with a compensatory draft pick at the end of the fourth round.
The question at this point now becomes whether or not the Packers will select another tight end in the upcoming draft. Ted Thompson has shown a penchant for drafting a player's replacement a season or two before that player leaves. He picked Mike Neal the year before letting Cullen Jenkins go. Derek Sherrod was drafted while Chad Clifton still appeared to be the starter (although Clifton ended up missing most of that final season). One could theorize that Randall Cobb was selected to eventually replace Greg Jennings, and that Casey Hayward was pegged to replace Charles Woodson.
On paper, the Packers appear deep at tight end. Tom Crabtree, D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor have all played roles on the team, and Andrew Quarless should return this season after having previously been described as a "poor man's Jermichael Finley." The Packers also like Brandon Bostick, who essentially redshirted his first year on the practice squad after playing at tiny Newberry College. But none of them has shown enough to make anyone think a defense would have to game plan against them.
Even with a $3 million roster bonus looming next month, it appears that Jermichael Finley will remain a member of the Packers next season. April's draft will give us a clue as to whether or not there is any chance he could remain with the team after that, although it seems unlikely. In theory, Finley could have a great season and endear himself to fans and the front office alike. He could prove to be a model citizen, and sign an extension at a home town discount. But the chances of that happening seem remote, to say the least.
Players like Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers are more important to the Packers' success, and still need to be signed to blockbuster deals. Other players will need to be re-signed as well, and there just will not be enough money to go around for all the good, young players the Packers are grooming.
If Finley ends up sticking around in 2013 as it appears he will, it would almost surely be his last season with the Packers. Both the player and the team will want to make the most of it.
Finley needs to have a good season because it is a contract year for him. McCarthy and the rest of the team will want to take advantage of this opportunity for another championship while Aaron Rodgers is still at the peak of his game, and will look to utilize Finley's unique skill set that causes matchup problems for opposing defenses.
For those reasons, the Packers may be hoping that keeping Finley for one more year is a win-win proposition.
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