Whether he’d admit it or not, Packers tight end Jermichael Finley is likely about to face the most important season in his NFL career. And don’t get me wrong—every season is an important one when you are a professional playing in the “Not For Long” league. But 2011 stands to be a make-or-break year for the Packers talented but oft-injured tight end.
In fact, Finley’s entire future with the Packers might come down to how his 2011 season works out.
Finley has come a long ways since the Packers drafted him in April of 2008. Taken in the third round and 91st overall, Finley came into the league as a physically superior athlete but mentally raw football player. Remember, Finley left Texas after just two seasons and arrived in Green Bay as a starry-eyed 21-year-old.
But the talent Finley possessed was evident from the second he stepped onto the practice field. You could just tell by looking at him. He’s an imposing figure and he had the athleticism to take advantage of his size from the get-go.
Still, that combination didn’t guarantee Finley anything at this level. In fact, Finley was inactive for the first two weeks of his rookie season and didn’t catch a pass in the five games that followed. Then came his showing in Tennessee.
He caught his first NFL pass—good for six yards—but it’s the passes he didn’t catch and his reaction to it that gave us our first real glimpse at the young tight end. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looked to Finley in two separate situations—including one near the goal line on fourth down—and the passes fell incomplete.
After the game, in which the Packers lost in overtime, Finley frustratingly threw both his coaches and Rodgers under the bus when he told the media that he needed to be used better and that the quarterback needed to throw better balls.
Those comments obvious didn’t sit well with many inside the Packers organization, and they shouldn’t have. Finley got the privilege of a nice chat in Mike McCarthy’s office the following week, and all the apologies were made.
To be fair, all 21-year-olds need that one “duh” moment, even in the NFL. Finley had his in Tennessee. And to his credit, Finley has seemingly been a much different player since Week 8 of 2008.
He only caught six total passes in his rookie season, but the maturity level had been raised. There were no more incidents, and Finley opened the ’09 season as Donald Lee’s primary back up.
His absence from the starting lineup only lasted four weeks. After he exploded against the Vikings in the Metrodome for 128 yards and a touchdown, Finley took over the starter’s spot. A knee injury in Cleveland cost him three games, but he came back in Week 10 and took the league by storm.
After games against the 49ers (seven catches), Ravens (seven catches, two touchdowns) and Steelers (nine catches, touchdown), Finley had shown the NFL what he was capable of. In the playoffs, he proved it.
Finley caught six passes for 126 yards in the Packers 51-45 loss to the Cardinals, and by the time the 2010 season came around, there was arguably no player in the game as anticipated as Finley.
But the “Year of the Takeover,” as Finley so often tweeted, wasn’t to be in 2010. He certainly got off to a nice start, catching 21 passes in just four games, but Finley’s season had to be considered a letdown after tearing up his meniscus in Washington. He’d probably be the first to tell you that.
That up and down story of Finley’s short career brings us to this moment.
The Packers and Finley both sit at a crossroads. The Packers currently have one of the most physically dominating tight ends the game has today, a difference maker with the potential to be a Pro Bowler every season he suits up. But Finley has also been a injury risk, missing 12 games in 2010 (16 if you count playoffs) and three in ’09.
And the real problem is that he’s scheduled to be a free agent after this season.
What are the Packers to do?
I think the best case scenario for everyone involved would be for Finley to explode out the gates in 2011, stay healthy for the entire season and accept some kind of contract extension during the season. Packers GM Ted Thompson hasn’t been fickle about rewarding guys he’s drafted and let develop, and Finley wouldn’t be any different if he proved the production and an ability to stay on the field.
But what if Finley doesn’t stay healthy next season? Let’s say he misses a decent chunk of the year, say eight or more games. Even if he tears the league apart in the games he plays, can the Packers afford to take the risk financially to re-sign him?
49ers tight end Vernon Davis signed a six-year, $42.7 million deal in September of last year, and it wouldn’t be out of the equation to think Finley could command something in that ballpark. Maybe not that hefty, but close. Do you really think Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wouldn’t be willing to dish out that kind of money to bring a Longhorn back to Texas?
I don’t think Thompson and the Packers would have a problem re-signing Finley to big contract if he produces next season. He’s a special player, and no GM in their right mind would let a player of Finley’s talent go if he wasn’t given a reason. Finley can make sure there’s no reason in 2011.
Injuries are a part of the game, and, to be honest, his injury last season was nothing more than a freak play during a fumble return. But it’s going to be all the more important next season that Finley avoids Dr. Pat McKenzie. Another significant injury would most certainly put his future in Green Bay in serious risk.
And it’s not like the Packers haven’t considered the scenario in which Finley leaves this team. Call it what you want, but the Packers have drafted three tight ends—Andrew Quarless, D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor—over the past two seasons. There is obviously a touch of insecurity in Thompson’s office about Finley’s future. Thompson has proven over and over again that he sees potential holes in the Packers roster years in advance, and this may or may not be a case of that.
But one thing is for sure: Finley’s 2011 season is going to be an important one. He can either make Thompson’s decision an easy one with the kind of year we’ve all been waiting for, or another injury could mean his final season in Green Bay.
Either way, this should be one of the big story lines for 2011. Let’s hope that Finley’s recent injury problems are a thing of the past, because I don’t know many who want to see one of the more physically dominating players in the NFL hobble their way out of Green Bay.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2