MILWAUKEE — Jermichael Finley knew he was in line for a big payday. He just had no idea how quickly it would come.
The Green Bay Packers’ tight end posted several career highs in 2011, hauling in 55 receptions for 767 yards and eight touchdowns as the Packers went 15-1 during the regular season. Finley was expecting Green Bay to use its franchise tag to postpone his free agency for one season, but in a somewhat surprising turn of events on Feb. 23, the team signed the 24-year-old to a two-year, $14.7 million contract.
“It was an all-of-a-sudden thing,” Finley said Tuesday at the Bradley Center, where he was taking in the Milwaukee Bucks-Washington Wizards game. “My agent told me to just be ready. I didn’t know they were going to come up tremendously. They came up and showed me that they really wanted me here.”
Finley, who is difficult to cover with his combination of size and speed, dropped 11 passes in 2011 — a league high among tight ends — so conventional wisdom was that the team would make him prove himself worthy of a long-term contract next season. But to fight the franchise tag — which creates a one-year contract under which a player is paid the average of the top five players at his position — Finley had said he was prepared to argue he is a receiver and not a tight end because the Packers usually line him up as a wideout. Winning such an argument with the NFL could have increased his 2012 payday under the franchise tag from $5.4 million to $9.4 million.
“Neither side wanted that,” Finley said. “It would have ruined the relationship. I’m just so glad I’m still here in Wisconsin and with the Green Bay Packers.”
Contract in hand, Finley knows the pressure is now on him to produce. The combination of dropped passes and his outspoken nature caused Packers fans to boo him as the season wore in, including during the team’s playoff loss to the Giants. His three drops in that game led to a spate of angry messages to both him and his wife via Twitter.
He called the criticism a “mixed blessing.”
“Working out every day, I think about all the criticism I get daily,” he said. “It’s kind of like . . . sad. But I’m going to bust my butt to prove everybody wrong, to show the naysayers wrong. I just zone it out and go to a different place.
“It’s a good thing because you’re helping me get to where I want to be, but it’s a bad thing because you’re a Packers fan and that’s stabbing me in the back.”
So on he goes, continuing to build a better Jermichael Finley. He works out six days a week, from approximately noon until 6 p.m. He says his training regimen drives his wife crazy at times but insists he’s not overdoing it.
“I’m maintaining right now,” Finley said. “I don’t think I can live a day without working out. I feel so bad if I just sit around or eat a French fry. My wife trips out on me. It’s just something I do.”
With Finley signed, the Packers now can consider using the franchise tag on Pro Bowl center Scott Wells or backup quarterback Matt Flynn, both of whom are set to become unrestricted free agents and would draw significant interest on the open market.
For what it’s worth, Finley doesn’t see the Packers using the franchise tag on Wells, 31, who has started 100 games for Green Bay since being selected in the seventh round of the 2004 draft.
“(General manager) Ted Thompson is the mastermind of all this stuff,” Finley said. “He’s going to make the best decision for the organization. . . . It’s going to be whatever is the best thing for the Green Bay Packers.”