Jermichael Finley figures to be a key component in the Green Bay Packers 2011 title defense when the season gets underway September 8th in a matchup against the New Orleans Saints.
This season also happens to be the last of Finley's rookie contract. Returning to the team after missing much of last season, the emerging star is receiving significant attention as one of the many reasons why the Packers are poised to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.
If he decides to test the free agent market in 2012, Finley will be one of the most sought-after free agents and surely be paid accordingly. As a team that is known to avoid overspending for players, the Packers may be forced to dish a large amount of money towards Finley if they want to keep him for the 2012 season. Faced with this dilemma, the Packers front office is doing significant work in order to make sure the Packers are in a position to succeed in 2012 whether or not Finley is on the team.
There is no question that Finley is taking his place among the top tight ends in the league. In 2010, Finley was the focus of coach Mike McCarthy's offensive gameplan and terrorized defenses before a knee injury forced the organization to place the TE on IR. In the four games before being hurt in Week 5, the emerging star caught 21 balls for 301 yards and a touchdown. At that pace, Finley would have chased the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end and finished the season with 84 catches and 1,204 yards. The record is held by Kellen Winslow, Sr. with 1,290 in 1980. With Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball, there is no reason to think Finley can't break or even shatter this 30 year old record.
At 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, Finley is a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators. If you decide to cover him with a linebacker, he will burn you with his speed and athleticism. If you try to combat his speed by defending him with a corner, the man will bully the defender with his size to create space. The only way to properly defend him is to put two or three defenders on him and jeopardize leaving other receivers open.
The combination of size, speed, and power allow the Packers coaching staff to put Finley all over the field in order to exploit mismatches. It is clear the Packers would love to have Finley back to pair with Greg Jennings as reliable and lethal targets for Rodgers over the next five years. If money becomes the most important aspect of a new deal for Finley, the Packers are placing themselves in position to let him walk in order to spend the money more efficiently.
In the draft in April, the Packers organization drafted two TEs. In the fourth round, they selected DJ Williams out of the University of Arkansas. Three rounds later, they selected Ryan Taylor from the University of North Carolina. Not many analysts had listed the position of TE as one of need for the Packers coming into the draft. During the 2010 season, the Packers carried four TEs on the roster: Finley, Donald Lee, and two rookies: Tom Crabtree and Andrew Quarless.
Although not drafted by the Packers, Crabtree was a practice squad player until the Packers gave him a chance to play in 2010. So in the last two offseasons, the Packers have added four TEs and shed one as Donald Lee was cut by the organization on March 2. Another Packers draft pick, WR Randall Cobb, will feature as a new weapon that will create matchup problems for defenses based on his speed.
Coming into training camp the TE position is as follows: Finley, Quarless, Crabtree, Williams, and Taylor. It is unlikely that all five players make the roster, but the Packers have a good field of talent to pull from in grooming a potential replacement for Finley. Quarless is the player that most fits in the mold of Finley, as he is 6-4, 255 pounds. He filled in for Finley after the injury with some success, but definitely had some rookie moments. Over the 2010 season, Quarless caught 21 balls for 238 yards. Although, Finley trumped Quarless' numbers playing a quarter of the games, Quarless showed flashes of brilliance and potential with some even saying he looked better than Finley did during his rookie campaign.
With Finley going down in Week 5, the Packers offense was forced to reevaluate and refocus their attention. Instead of having Finley as the number one target, other players were forced to step up and take control of the offense. No player did this better than WR Greg Jennings. In the four games played with Jermichael Finley in the lineup, Jennings had 12 receptions for 160 yards and 3 TDs for averages of 4 catches per game, 40 yards per game, and 0.75 TD per game. With Finley out, Jennings picked up his game in a big way and had 64 catches gaining 1,105 yards and 9 TDs for 5.33 catches per game, 92.08 yards per game, and 0.75 TD per game.
Although other players picked up their games, Jennings was the most notable for stepping up and becoming Rodgers most consistent go-to player. Jennings and the other Packers WRs, TEs, and RBs showed the Packers have incredible weapons that are ready to go if Finley was to be absent again.
As Jennings and others such as Driver, Quarless, Nelson, and Jones showed they can be effective weapons capable of getting the job done, the Packers playbook changed to feature the depth of the Packers instead of focusing on one player to be the sole number one target. In different games, different players stepped up in order to get the job done. By showing this depth, the Packers have made it clear that if one of these players were to leave, their is a replacement ready to step in and take those opportunities.
The Packers would love to have Jermichael Finley back on the roster in 2012 as part of a quest for a possible three-peat, but if he demands too much money they are not only prepared to let him walk, but they are in position to be successful even if this is the case. Preparing for potential life after Finley even before the final year of his contract shows the intelligence and confidence with which the Packers front office operates.