The Green Bay Packers should turn a "50/50" proposition on the future of tight end Jermichael Finley into a 100 percent certainty for the 2013 season.
Instead of enduring a significant dropoff at the position, or recycling Finley for a high draft pick in April, the Packers ought to give the enigmatic tight end one more season in Green Bay. If for no other reason, such a decision would ensure Green Bay doesn't miss out on Finley putting it all together before he re-enters unrestricted free agency in the spring of 2014.
Uncertainty has continued to cloud the future of the fifth-year tight end.
On Thursday, Finley told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that it was just "50/50" he would be back with the Packers next season. A league source also told Dunne that it was a "coin flip" on whether or not he'd be in Green Bay in 2013.
Earlier this month, Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports wrote that league sources "expect Finley to be elsewhere." He predicts Finley will be a cap casualty.
Money is certainly an issue in this case. Finley, who turns 26 in March, is scheduled to earn a whopping $8.75 million in 2013—the final season of his two-year deal he signed last February. In March of this year, a $3.5 million roster bonus becomes guaranteed. Overall, Finley's total cap hit will rank as the team's third highest in 2013, behind only quarterback Aaron Rodgers and defensive back Charles Woodson.
In no way is Finley the Packers' third best player. He's probably not even the offense's third-best pass catcher.
That said, his relatively large cap hit is palatable for one season.
While Finley has struggled to match promise and potential with statistical measures on the field, the drop off in both talent and impact from Finley to the next Green Bay tight end is substantial.
Former fifth-round pick D.J. Williams has been a helmet-and-shorts All-Pro in back-to-back training camps, but he has just nine catches for 70 yards in two full seasons. In 2012, Williams dropped three of his 14 total targets and was used more as a run-blocker than pass-catcher. Expecting him to replace Finley's production in his third year is certainly viewing the scenario in a very optimistic light.
Fan-favorite Tom Crabtree is a serviceable player, but that's because the Packers use him correctly. He's a tough-as-nails, win-at-the-point tight end, while Finley is a player who demands respect in the passing game every time he's on the field. Crabtree made some big plays in 2012, but he simply took advantage of matchups that Finley could have only dreamt of seeing. In no scenario should Crabtree be considered a candidate to play 800 or more snaps (Finley played 797 in 2012) in the Packers' current offense.
Others will point to Andrew Quarless as a potential replacement next season, especially after he filled in capably for Finley during the Packers' Super Bowl run in 2010-11. But Quarless is still on the mend from reconstructive knee surgery, and he has to be considered on the bubble to even make the roster in 2013. He was never an explosive athlete or matchup-busting tight end when completely healthy; after nearly two years being on the shelf and a reconstruction of his knee, it's worth pondering what kind of starter Quarless would be now.
Finally, 2011 seventh-rounder Ryan Taylor played just 144 offensive snaps in 2012. While a player on the rise, Taylor's skill set might be limited to a ceiling of special teams and spot duty on offense. He's done well in both roles. But without much doubt, Taylor's chances of emerging as a starting-caliber tight end next season are unlikely at best.
Losing Finley at tight end, combined with the looming departure of veteran receiver Greg Jennings, would put a serious and note-worthy dent in the Packers well-stocked passing game.
These realties leave the Packers in a difficult position. If the decision is made to move on from Finley to save money, a draft pick in April would almost certainly have to be used on a tight end.
Stanford's Zach Ertz and Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert are both nice players, but recycling Finley for either tight end at No. 26 overall doesn't fix what ailed the Packers in 2012. In fact, having to fill a hole at tight end would likely limit what problems general manager Ted Thompson could solve this offseason.
If that's the route the Packers did go—dumping Finley and drafting a tight end in the 2013 class—it's very difficult to see how such a swap would make Green Bay better next season.
The risk of cutting Finley now and watching him finally put everything together elsewhere should be another deterrent.
While Finley is not the same other-worldly athlete he was before his 2010 knee injury, he's still a rare player at a position that continues to grow in importance in the NFL. As a big-bodied, vertical pass-catcher, Finley's mere presence in the offense has opened up opportunities for others. Little things that go unnoticed in the boxscore are certainly a part of Finley's overall appeal.
There were even signs last season that the proverbial lightbulb might be close to flicking on.
Late in 2012, the focus that was sometimes lacking from Finley appeared to lock in. After dropping seven passes over the first eight games, Finley dropped just two over the final 10. From Week 11 on, Finley caught 37 passes for 441 yards and one touchdown—numbers which equate to 66 catches and 784 yards over a 16-game season. According to Pro Football Focus, Finley caught 77 percent of his targeted passes and forced five missed tackles during the inspired stretch late last season.
Finley was a noticeably different player, one closer to the tight end who dominated the 2009 NFC Wild Card than the always-frustrating fan punching bag he eventually became.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy agreed.
"I feel very good about the way he finished the year," McCarthy said in his final press conference in January. "There was a change in the young man."
Now, general manager Ted Thompson and the rest of the Packers front office must decide if that change in focus and production was enough to give Finley one more season to prove he belongs in Green Bay.
Thompson would be unlikely to argue that Finley's cap hit in 2013 is where the Packers want it to be. If he stays, Finley will probably make $3-4 million more next season than he actually should. The two-year deal he negotiated with Finley last February made a lot of sense length-wise, but the backloading of the deal hurts now.
Still, the implications of dumping Finley now—including a severe drop off in talent and impact at tight end, the creation of another roster hole that would need fixing this April and the risk of watching him blossom in another NFL city— should mean he's worth one final expensive season.
According to Dunne, the Packers haven't communicated any plans to Finley about his future with the club. Thompson and the front office should facilitate that discussion, while ensuring the much-maligned tight end that his future in Green Bay is safe for one more season.
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.
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