Barring some unforeseen and unpredictable event before now and the start of September, the Green Bay Packers will have tight end Jermichael Finley on their 53-man roster for the 2013 season.
Beyond that is anyone's best guess.
Finley, 26, is entering the final year of a two-year, $14 million deal he signed in late February of 2012. All told, Finley will possess a $8.75 million cap number in 2013—a ridiculously high figure this season, and a potentially handcuffing total in 2014.
The "handcuffing" phrase is used here because his high cap number now will make it almost impossible for the Packers to franchise tag Finley after the 2013 season, which strips the Packers of a very valuable retention tool.
According to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and confirmed to CheeseheadTV by former NFL agent Joel Corry, a player who receives the franchise tag during a given year must make the higher of the following two figures: One; the NFL's designated price tag, which is calculated in part by averaging out the five highest contracts at the position during that year, or two; 120 percent of his prior year's cap number.
In 2013, the franchise tag for tight ends will cost just $6.066 million—the second lowest amount among the various positions. Only kickers and punters will make less on the tag next season. The value of the tag should not increase drastically after 2013, with a tentative estimate ranging in the $6.2-$6.5 million range.
The easy math for option No. 2 reveals an ugly truth for the Packers. With an $8.75 million cap number in 2013 (minus his $300,000 workout bonus, which, according to Corry, doesn't count in determining tag value), Finley would ultimately cost Green Bay $10.14 million to franchise tag after next season.
Given the monster contracts coming for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews, and the down-the-road deal needed for defensive lineman B.J. Raji, Russ Ball and the Packers can't reasonably expect to have the ability of placing a $10-million franchise tag on any one player in 2014.
An otherwise cheap alternative to immediately deciding on Finley's future in Green Bay after 2013 is all but eliminated from Ted Thompson's arsenal.
This reality was just one in a long list of reasons why a re-negotiated deal for Finley was never close—or probably even heavily discussed—this offseason.
In almost all cases, contract renegotiations are an exercise in leverage. Whoever has more slanted their direction is going to get the better end of a deal. In this case, all the leverage stood firmly in Finley's corner.
Where was the need for Finley?
The deal he signed in February of 2012—which the Packers also agreed upon, mind you—will pay him almost $9 million next season. While he hasn't earned such a salary, that should have been a moot point for Finley's camp.
If Green Bay kept him in 2013, he'd make the $8.75 million loot for one year and then almost certainly hit unrestricted free agency (given the tag restrictions) after next season. If released, he could turn his attention to Jared Cook's monster deal with the St. Louis Rams this offseason—valued at $35.11 million over five years, with a whopping $19 million in guarantees—and still see dollar signs in 2013 and beyond.
Finley's circumstances were always win-win. And it would have took some kind of sweet deal from Ted Thompson, Ball and the Packers for agent Blake Baratz to budge from his point of leverage before Green Bay had to act on his $3 million roster bonus.
In the end, the Packers paid Finley his $3 million in late March, all but guaranteeing he'll get another season in Green Bay.
With that one season, Finley will likely decide his football future.
If he finally starts scratching his all-world potential, one NFL insider thinks Finley will make himself too valuable for the Packers to let walk.
ESPN's Adam Schefter, when asked by Alex Petakas of ESPN Milwaukee about Finley's future last Saturday, said it's up to the tight end to determine his course of action.
“I think that’s up to Jermichael Finley. Talent is not the issue for him. It’s never been the issue with him,” Schefter said. “It’s whether he’s going dedicate himself and commit himself to becoming this player he has the potential to be. And if he does that, he’ll make himself so valuable that Green Bay will either want to re-sign him or put the tag on him.”
We've already dismissed the tag route as a viable option for Finley in 2014.
However, a strong start to next season from Finley could force Thompson into jumpstarting extension talks. The idea of Thompson letting a productive player (remember, in this scenario, we're assuming a "strong start" to 2013) he drafted walk before he turns 27 years old is almost unfathomable. If Ted Thompson is anything, he's a general manager able and willing to pay money to keep his young, productive guys in Green Bay. See Brad Jones and his three-year, $11.75 million deal this offseason. There's no reason to expect anything different with Finley, given a productive start to next season.
That said, Thompson would have to make a mid-season deal attractive enough that Finley would bypass another chance at trying his hand in unrestricted free agency, which—given the money handed to Cook—seems rather unlikely. A big season in 2013 will only increase his value for next spring.
In this "productive" scenario, the safe money remains on Finley playing out 2013 and then hitting the open market as a wanted man capable of coming close to Gronkowskian ($7 million per year) bucks.
Of course, Finley could also have another average season—which is all you can really describe his last two years as—and the Packers might feel more comfortable letting him hit the open market. Would another NFL team be willing to pay premium tight end money ($5.5-7 million) for a three-year underachiever? By then, and depending how the 2013 NFL draft plays out, the Packers might be ready to move on from Finley anyway.
Regardless of how his 2013 season plays out, Finley's future in Green Bay past next year remains cloudy, at best. There are far more scenarios in which Finley is playing elsewhere in 2014 than the contrary.
Finley's two-year deal, once universally viewed in a favorable light, is now a major handcuff—both on the team's cap in 2013, and the Packers' ability to keep their polarizing tight end in town past next season. Lacking the convenient ability to franchise tag Finley after 2013, Thompson might be forced to watch him play elsewhere in 2014.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.