Finley eager to prove he’s an elite tight end

This is the fourth in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Green Bay Packers’ July 26 start of camp.


July 10: Quarterbacks
July 11: Running backs
July 12: Wide receivers
July 13: Tight ends
July 16: Offensive linemen
July 17: Defensive linemen
July 18: Linebackers
July 19: Safeties
July 20: Cornerbacks
July 23: Specialists
July 24: Coaches
July 25: 5 things to accomplish in camp
July 26: Fans’ guide to camp


TODAY’S POSITION: TIGHT ENDS


Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8


Projected starter: Jermichael Finley (fifth season)


Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): Brandon Bostick, *Tom Crabtree, Eric Lair, *Andrew Quarless, *Ryan Taylor, *D.J. Williams


The breakdown: Heading into the 2011 training camp, Finley was coming back from a season-ending knee injury and entering the final year of his contract. After a season filled with highs (three touchdowns in a win over Chicago) and lows (leading the team in drops), Finley is back in Green Bay on a new two-year contract.


As New England’s Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham continued playing so well last year, most coaches, fans and media members began to recognize them as the elite young tight ends in the NFL. That does not sit well with Finley. He wants to be recognized on their level. He wants to be a Pro Bowl selection and prove he’s worth more than what he got on a two-year deal. Though Finley will make $15 million, Gronkowski signed for six years and $54 million with the Patriots. That’s where Finley wants to be.


If Finley, 25 and entering his fifth season, can overcome the problems with drops that plagued him in 2011 and become a steady target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, he could reach that next level. Like Gronkowski and Graham, Finley is a mismatch on nearly every down due to his 6-foot-5 frame and quality speed. But in Finley’s own words, he and Rodgers lacked chemistry last season.


Rodgers, likely in an effort to motivate Finley, was not overly positive following the three-touchdown game in Chicago in Week 3. When asked about Finley’s significant contribution that day, Rodgers commented in his postgame press conference that Finley still needs to focus on the finer details. So perhaps it’s understandable that Finley didn’t feel like he and Rodgers were on the same page last season.


But if that does change, imagine how dangerous the combination of Finley, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson will be if each of them is clicking with Rodgers. It would be nearly impossible for an opposing defense to stop all three of them — not to mention Donald Driver, James Jones and Randall Cobb.


Behind Finley, there is a lot of talent. Last season, coach Mike McCarthy opted to keep five tight ends on the active roster, and that appears likely once again. The only exception could be the health of Quarless, who suffered a significant knee injury late last season. It’s possible he could begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. If that happens, he could still return after Week 6.


Even if Quarless is out to begin the season, last year’s rookies, Taylor and Williams, appear deserving of more opportunities on offense. Some scouts regarded Williams as the No. 1 tight end in the entire 2011 NFL draft class. But with the Packers’ depth at the position, he had only two receptions.


Crabtree is not much of a factor in the passing game but is a very good blocking tight end.


Similar to Green Bay’s situation at wide receiver, there is almost too much talent for the Packers at tight end, and that can sometimes prevent high-quality players from getting enough significant snaps.


Best position battle: Assuming Quarless begins the season on the PUP list, who will win the No. 2 tight end spot? Crabtree will get most of his snaps on running plays, but when the Packers split Finley out wide, can Williams elevate from a two-catch rookie to a big role in the offense? If Williams or Taylor prove to be reliable, it will give McCarthy more time to slowly involve Quarless midway through the season. And that could be critical to the long-term development of Quarless, who is still only 23 years old.


The next two seasons will also be important for Quarless, Williams and Taylor, due to Finley’s contract situation. If Finley joins Gronkowski and Graham on that elite level, will Finley remain in Green Bay beyond 2013? General manager Ted Thompson will have to pay big money to Jennings next offseason in order to keep him, so that could make it difficult to also break the bank for Finley a year later. If Quarless, Williams or Taylor can even become Finley-lite, it could make Thompson’s decision easier.


Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Packers; 2. Lions; 3. Vikings; 4 Bears. Another position, another top ranking for Green Bay. Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew has been outstanding the past two seasons. In 2011, Pettigrew had 83 receptions for 777 yards and five touchdowns. But, despite playing in the NFL one less season than Finley, Pettigrew is two years older than Finley. Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph had a decent rookie season, finishing with 26 catches for 249 yards and three touchdowns. Chicago’s Kellen Davis led all Bears tight ends in receiving last season, but that was with only 18 catches for 206 yards. Davis was, however, dependable around the goal line, catching five touchdowns.


Finley says: “Me and the QB didn’t have chemistry. The routes were off sometimes, and that’ll mess with your head when the ball comes. I feel like I’ve been playing like a robot lately. I just need to get out there and freestyle it: Play fast, not count my steps, not worrying about how the defense is playing me or what the defense is doing and just do me. If I do me, it can take my game to the next level.”