2011 Season Will Determine Jermichael Finley’s Future in Green Bay

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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.

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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.

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  • Ron LC

    All I’ve got to say is Justin Harrell. TT does not ever give up on a player because of injury. If, in fact, Finley goes down again, his FA stock will collapse faster than a pre-fab building on the San Anreas fault line. I’m more concerned if he has an All-Pro season. Then he will be very expensive to retain.

    Enjoyed the analysis Zach. Everthing you point to is a valid concern. The selection of two more TE’s is an interesting development. This may reflect a concern over Finley’s recovery. Or not! Most likely it is TT just going for talent he likes and seeing how they fit into the Packer strategy.

    Finley is a big man on throughbred legs. That is always going to create an injury risk. Let’s hope they have some therapy that will strengthen the knee(s) and get him that All-Pro year we think he has in him. Worry about the money later.

    • Zach Kruse

      Thanks Ron. I think if Finley has a big year and stays healthy, it could be a blank check situation.

  • Chad Toporski

    I wouldn’t mind seeing Finley miss 3 games a season if it meant 13 games of having a dynamic TE on the field who can change the game.

    On the other hand, I don’t want to see him miss half the season either. At that point the costs begin to outweigh the benefits.

  • Tarynfor 12

    RonLC makes a good point with Harrell and TT not giving up easily on players.
    The problem is Harrell is not in a situation as Finley to command the money/contract Finley may/may not have depending on his play or not.
    Can Finley afford another injury this season,yes to an extent and that extent is based on Quarless.
    IMO,Finley doesn’t need to have that “take over season” as the #1 thing to do on his list,but being very productive to show what we did indeed miss,and to do so without time lost in games other than to a strategic sitting for rest.

  • PackersRS

    I’m never going to hope for injury on anyone, even if it is in the best interest of the Packers.

    This will be by far the most important situation next offseason.

    • Zach Kruse

      Agreed on all accounts.

  • Mojo

    As much as I like Finley, I wonder if his epiphany from March 2010 http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2010/05/15/jermichael-finleys-epiphany-could-be-great-for-green-bay/ was more about the possible big payday versus becoming a team player and model citizen. Although, even with past immature behavior (including the annoying tendency to refer to himself in the third person) and possible injury concerns, I believe it would be worth the risk to sign him long-term. I believe the reward part of the risk/reward equation is unusually high.

  • Tarynfor 12

    If it was only a risk/reward situation then signing him would be a no-brainer but,what happens with his contract can/may/will have implications of the contracts of some other big names as CM3 who is getting $600,000 this year and if Rodgers has /will have the year we are expecting(repeat) that will indeed take some ink.

    Fans can quickly sign everyone but TT needs to distribute the check ink more conservatively based on futures of others here and who are coming into them.

  • BubbaOne

    “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.”

    Zach, ya tink so?

    “To be fair, all 21-year-olds need that one “duh” moment…”

    Zack, apparently 22-year olds need them as well, eh?

    No matter how well Finley plays, there’s another question; does he want to stay and be a cog in a potent Super Bowl caliber team or does he want to be “the man” and get paid more money on another team?

    • Oppy

      “does he want to stay and be a cog in a potent Super Bowl caliber team or does he want to be “the man” and get paid more money on another team?”

      The often overlooked genius of Coach Billy B. and the Patriots entire organizational structure is that they have created a culture where the players 100% buy into the TEAM FIRST CONCEPT, period.

      They realize very quickly that nearly every player is expendable, and that if they hit free agency, they will be allowed to go elsewhere for more money because they believe in the younger player stepping up and filling the void.

      They accept it, and put aside the ego and personal success to embrace the “whatever the team needs to win” mentality.

      Even more amazing, often those players who do leave to go elsewhere for more money end up confiding that the move to another team for the paycheck and increased playing time/spotlight was not worth it..

      This is what the Packers need to accomplish as a organization. They are not there quite yet.

    • Zach Kruse

      Is there a reason you feel the need to talk down to me BubbaOne?

  • BubbaOne

    Zach, when you say a 21 yr old has a “duh” moment, then make one yourself it was hard not to point it out. Call it low hanging fruit that I could have resisted but didn’t.
    In general, I appreciate what you do and admire you for pursuing your passion.

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