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Will Jermichael Finley’s strong finish to the 2012 season result in his return in 2013?

TEs: Packers offseason by position

Players under contract
No.
Name
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
88
Jermichael Finley
6-5
247
24
5
Texas
81
Andrew Quarless
6-4
252
24
3
Penn State
82
Ryan Taylor
6-3
254
25
2
North Carolina
84
D.J. Williams
6-2
245
24
2
Arkansas
48
Brandon Bostick
6-3
245
23
R
Newberry
 
Restricted free agents
No.
Name
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
83
Tom Crabtree
6-4
245
27
3
Miami (Ohio)

The good news:  At midseason, it appeared Finley was a goner. He’d dropped seven passes in the first eight games, his agent had questioned via social media quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ leadership abilities, and Finley, never one to censor himself, had continued his outspoken ways, to the chagrin of the organization. Then came a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article about how the team was ready to move on and planned to cut or trade him in the offseason. Whether that served as motivation for Finley is hard to say, but clearly he finished strong. He broke the franchise single-season record for receptions by a tight end (61), and he didn’t drop a single pass over the final six games (including playoffs). Tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said Finley’s drop percentage early in the season was “about 30 percent,” and during the second half of the season, it was down to 6 percent. “I’m sure a number of factors were involved. I think more than anything, getting him into a rhythm,” Fontenot said. “We talked about eliminating some things on the menu for him after a couple of games into the season, which we did, and that also helped. Absolutely, he’s a guy that I hope to see here for a number of years. I see him being a very productive player for us.”

Not coincidentally, Finley’s relationship with Rodgers was improving during that time, as the pair began spending the night before each game talking about the game plan, how he should run his routes and life in general. The connection made a big difference, as Finley caught 26 passes in the final five regular-season games and also had a breakthrough day in Detroit on Nov. 18, when his three receptions included a touchdown and a critical 40-yard catch-and-run to set up the game-winning score. Nevertheless, Finley acknowledged after the team’s season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff to San Francisco that he might not return, pointing out that NFL stands for “Not For Long” in many cases. “It’s the nature of the business. It’s a funny one,” Finley said. “The logo stands true – NFL. If anybody goes anywhere, hopefully they make the best of it. Hopefully it’s not me. I want to be here forever.”

The bad news:  What had appeared to be a position of strength is now one of uncertainty. Finley’s status is unclear, despite being under contract for 2013. Quarless was activated from the physically unable to perform list on Nov. 7, practiced for nearly a month but was never able to get back on the field and was put on season-ending injured reserve on Dec. 1. That meant the catastrophic knee injury he suffered on Dec. 4, 2011 against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium cost him an entire season, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same guy he was when he became a starter as a rookie in 2010 after Finley’s season-ending knee injury. Williams looked like he was destined for big things after a strong start to training camp, but he wound up being a complete non-factor. He wound up being a game-day inactive four times, including the season-ending playoff loss to San Francisco. And Taylor, who showed great promise and caught Rodgers’ eye as a rookie, failed to make the Year 2 jump and was relegated to playing only on special teams. Crabtree is a restricted free agent and could garner some interest on the open market because of his special-teams talents and a couple of eye-catching plays during the season.

The big question:  Coach Mike McCarthy seems to have a soft spot in his heart for Finley, and based on the coach’s comments in his annual season-ending news conference, Finley seems like a better bet to return, even though he apparently believes it’s a “50/50” proposition. But while the question of if he’ll return is a major question – the second year of the two-year, $14 million deal he signed last February calls for him to be paid a $3 million roster in March and count $8.25 million on the salary cap – the better question is, if he is cut, what will it do to the Packers’ offense? Even with some of his up-and-down moments, Finley commands defensive attention because of the matchup issues he creates, and as Rodgers often talks about, completions are frequently the result of every eligible receiver doing his part, not just the pass-catcher. With wide receiver Greg Jennings a virtual lock to leave as a free agent, and offense without the two-time Pro Bowl receiver and Finley would be vastly different. At the same time, one of the great mysteries of the 2012 season is, with all the Cover-2 defenses the Packers faced, why they couldn’t exploit those schemes with Finley down the seam or underneath. The Packers will have to decide whether they feel confident in their other tight end options and think long and hard before deciding whether the cap relief of cutting Finley is worth it.

Offseason outlook: In 2011, Quarless showed appreciable improvement in Year 2 despite the offseason being wiped out by labor unrest. The disappointment of 2012 was that Taylor and Williams, with the benefit of a full (albeit limited by new collective bargaining agreement rules) offseason, didn’t make a similar jump. Now, they enter their third seasons and it’s time for both to step forward – especially if Finley departs.

“D.J., I don’t know that he really went anywhere because he’s the same kid that I always thought he was: He’s an efficient route-runner,” Fontenot said. “I don’t know that he’s necessarily a deep threat but the kid has sure hands. We utilized him as best we saw fit. It turns out that, personnel-wise, we needed different personnel groups on the field. That being said, he did play (a lot of) reps, (so) he had plenty of opportunities.”

One guy who did make the most of his opportunities was Crabtree, who played only 389 snaps and finished with eight receptions for a whopping 203 yards, as he scored on a 27-yard fake-field goal against Chicago in Week 2, then had a 48-yard TD at Houston on Oct. 14 and a 72-yard TD against Arizona on Nov. 4.

One name to keep in mind, meanwhile, is Bostick’s. Coming out of tiny Newberry College as an undrafted rookie free agent, Bostick flashed enough during training camp to earn a spot on the practice squad, where he spent the entire season. He’s an intriguing prospect with decent size (6-3, 245) and a good feel for the passing game.

“I like the kid. He’s got speed, he’s an efficient route-runner, he’s got good hands, big hands,” Fontenot said. “He’s the kind of guy that defenses would have to account for. Hopefully, we’ll be able to spend more time together during the offseason and move into next season with him challenging for a role on our offense.”

Next: Offensive line.

– Jason Wilde

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