INDIANAPOLIS – The deal won’t make him a Packer for life, the phrase Jermichael Finley said repeatedly throughout the 2011 season when talk of his impending free agency would come up. But by agreeing to a two-year, $15 million contract Wednesday evening, the Green Bay Packers fourth-year tight end did something that could prove to be almost as helpful to his team.
By getting a deal done well before the March 5 deadline to apply the franchise tag, Finley gave the Packers the opportunity to use their tag on backup quarterback Matt Flynn, a move that could fetch them a valuable pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
"It's TRUE!” Finley exclaimed on his Twitter page (@JermichaelF88) after the news broke. “Thank you so much to the Packers organization, all of my fans, and my beautiful wife. Happy Bday. Let's GO Packers!! Back soon..."
Later, Finley Tweeted: “I could not be happier to have the privilege of being a Packer for the next 2 yrs. Glad to be back with my team & coaches for 1 common goal.”
At just 24 years old and having put together a pair of 55-catch seasons (2009, 2011) in the Packers’ spread-the-wealth offense, it was a foregone conclusion that the Packers wouldn’t allow such a young, talented player to hit the open market when free agency begins March 13. And with little talk of a long-term deal being in the offing, he appeared likely to be tagged, which would have meant a one-year, $5.4 million guaranteed contract for him in 2012.
With rumblings that Finley would petition to be classified as a wide receiver and not a tight end for the purposes of the franchise tag – a move that would have made a roughly $4 million difference if successful – the Packers could have been facing a protracted negotiation that would’ve caused the still-improving Finley to miss much of the offseason program and might have stretched into training camp.
“If we go down the franchise tag way, nobody wants that,” Finley said in a recent phone interview. “Everybody wants the long-term deal done and not the trouble that comes with the franchise tag.”
Instead, the sides compromised on a deal.
Like three of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ biggest weapons before him – Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson – Finley agreed to a shorter-term deal that will give him a second bite at the free-agency apple while he’s still in his prime. Like Jennings, who signed a three-year, $27 million deal that expires after the 2012 season, when the two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver will be just 29 years old, Jones signed a three-year deal in August after exploring the post-lockout free-agent market, while Nelson signed a three-year extension in October. Both will be free agents again after the 2014 season.
Had he insisted on a long-term deal, Finley likely would have used the contracts of Seattle Seahawks tight end Zach Miller (five years, $34 million, $17 million guaranteed) and San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (five years, $37 million, $23 million guaranteed) as negotiating points.
Instead, he stands to collect $15 million over the next two years, then could sign a blockbuster deal after the 2013 season, when he’ll be just 26 years old. In 2011, Finley caught 55 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns but also dropped 11 passes according to STATS, which ranked him fifth in the league.
“Jermichael and I talked about his year. He didn’t feel great about the way it went,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy after his exit interview with Finley after the season ended. “He knows he has a lot of really good football in front of him. I think Jermichael is a very talented young man and I would emphasize young. He needs an offseason program – like a lot guys – and I think he’ll continue to grow and be an outstanding football player for us.”
Former tight ends coach Ben McAdoo believes Finley was on course for a huge 2010 season before a knee injury at Washington in Week 5 ended his season. Finley had caught 21 passes for 301 yards and a touchdown in the first four games, building on a breakout 2009 season (55 catches for 676 yards) that culminated in a record-setting performance in the team’s 2009 NFC Wild Card loss to Arizona (six receptions, 159 yards). There’s no telling where he might be if he stays healthy in 2012 and 2013.
“This season to me reminded me a lot of 2009. He was making plays. He had some good numbers. But he (needed) to put more detail in his game,” McAdoo said after the season. “Then he went through the whole offseason program, training camp, as he approached the regular season (in 2010), he was a beast. And he had detail in his game. And he was playing at a very high level. Now we just got through a season. The offseason’s coming up. Training camp’s coming up. He’s got the same chance to do it over again – get that confidence going and put that detail in his game. And make a lot of plays.”
But while Finley’s deal may be good for both sides, it also comes with risk for both Finley and the team.
For the Packers, wrapping up Finley for only two years means he’ll hit the unrestricted free agent market again after the 2013 season, when he’ll still be very much in his prime and could be coming off back-to-back huge seasons if he plays to his potential.
For Finley, a longer-term deal with more guaranteed money would have protected him in the event of a career-threatening injury. The 2011 season marked the first time that Finley, who entered the league as a third-round pick from the University of Texas, played in all 16 games.
McCarthy was extremely complimentary of Finley after the season, saying: “He wants to be a great player and thinks he’s going to be a great player. With his talent level, that’s half the battle. I look for him to continuing to develop and establishing himself definitely as one of the (great) tight ends, Pro Bowl tight ends, in this league.”
And now, with a deal done with Finley, the Packers have a chance to get something of significance for Flynn, who otherwise would walk as an unrestricted free agent. If he isn’t tagged and signs elsewhere, the best the Packers could hope for would be a 2013 compensatory pick if Flynn signed elsewhere and played well. The highest compensatory pick possible would be at the end of the third round.
Tagging Flynn would carry a one-year, $14.5 million guaranteed salary, a deal which would pay him $6 million more than Rodgers is set to make in 2012. But it would only be a placeholder contract while the Packers worked out a trade with a quarterback-needy team like Cleveland, Miami, Seattle, Washington or others.
The franchise tag window opened on Monday and will remain open until March 5, when the Packers would have to decide whether to make the move. If they did tag Flynn, they would have to clear enough room under the salary cap to accommodate his salary. The Packers have roughly $6 million of salary-cap space they can roll over from 2011, and if they release veteran left tackle Chad Clifton and release or rework veteran wide receiver Donald Driver’s contract, they could clear enough cap space to use the tag on Flynn.
As former Packers vice president of player finance Andrew Brandt, now an analyst for ESPN and NationalFootballPost.com, explained on Green & Gold Today Wednesday morning, the Packers would run the risk of being stuck with a $14.5 million backup if they failed to find a trade partner, but that seems highly unlikely.
Rather, they could reach an agreement on compensation – something less than the two first-round picks a signing team would be required to pay the Packers for a franchise-tagged player – and have Flynn sign a long-term deal negotiated with his new team. That deal would take the place of the $14.5 million franchise tag, wiping it off the Packers’ books, and be structured in a way that would reduce the Packers’ cost to next to nothing. Brandt said it would likely use a large roster bonus to be paid by Flynn’s new team, who in turn would be giving Flynn the long-term deal and opportunity to start that he desires.
As for what the Packers might get for Flynn, they used the franchise tag on defensive lineman Corey Williams in 2008 and got a second-round pick from the Browns in return. Flynn, who has started two NFL regular-season games and threw for a franchise-record 480 yards and six touchdowns against Detroit on Jan. 1, could fetch a second-round pick or more.
The Packers conceivably could use the franchise tag on free-agent center Scott Wells, but at $8.4 million, that seems unlikely given that he’s 30 years old. It’s believed the Packers want to get a long-term deal done with Wells before free agency begins.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.