GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jermichael Finley believes his best years in the NFL are still to come.
During Finley’s five seasons in Green Bay, the 25-year-old Packers tight end has shown momentary flashes that suggest he could rise to the level of belonging in the top tier of players at his position. Other times, dropped passes and inconsistent play have been his undoing.
Finley is confident that, if his role increases in Green Bay’s offense, he can display his full potential soon.
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“I don’t think I even scratched it,” Finley said after cleaning out his locker Sunday. “I’ve poured it all out, but I don’t think consistently for 16 games. You’ve got to have opportunities, too. I’m not saying they’re not coming to me or whatnot, but if I had a chance to show my skills, I think I’d be a little bit better. It’s all about trust and communication.”
Finley is under contract with the Packers in 2013 after signing a two-year deal last offseason. With Finley due $8 million next season, it’s possible that Green Bay could still release him. But Finley hopes that’s not the case.
“Hopefully I’m here forever,” he said. “I’m good for next year, as far as I know.”
Finley’s 61 catches this season broke a franchise record for receptions by a tight end that had been held by Paul Coffman for 33 years. In 2009 and 2011, Finley fell one catch short of Coffman’s 56-catch record.
A few months ago, it seemed Finley was almost certainly playing in his final season with the Packers. He dropped six passes in the first six games and, when he did hold on to the ball, Finley rarely added many yards after catch. Plus, Finley was a part of a few off-field distractions, including negative comments that his agent, Blake Baratz, made about quarterback Aaron Rodgers. On several occasions, Finley also publicly questioned his chemistry with Rodgers.
Late in the regular season, however, Finley’s play and attitude began to change. He was racking up significant yards after catch and didn’t have a single drop in the team’s final six games.
“I’d say more than anything I was just determined,” Finley said. “Just determined to prove people wrong and just determined to make myself better overall. But that’s what I do; I play football for a living, and I put all of it in. And at the end of the day I get what I put out.”
Even coach Mike McCarthy was impressed with Finley’s late-season turnaround.
“I really felt Jermichael Finley was a different man, a different player from the bye week on,” McCarthy said at his season-ending press conference. “I had an opportunity to talk to him about that at length in his exit interview, so I feel very good about the way he finished the year.
“There was a change in that young man. We obviously have to look at the first half, too, and make sure that’s part of the evaluation because we’re all judged on 16 games.”
If McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson end up placing higher value on the second half of the year, Finley will likely return to the Packers for a sixth season. But, if the coaching staff and front office are frustrated by Finley’s struggles early on, the team could part ways with him.
Part of that assessment on Finley’s future in Green Bay will come down to the rest of the tight ends on the roster.
The team has long had high hopes for D.J. Williams, the John Mackey Award winner in college whom it made a fifth-round pick in 2011. Williams had a very strong training camp, but he spent several weekends on the gameday inactive roster despite being healthy. Williams was inactive again in the postseason loss to the San Francisco 49ers. At 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, Williams is undersized for an NFL tight end and doesn’t provide the same big target in the middle of the field for Rodgers as Finley does.
Andrew Quarless is another possibility to take over the starting tight end role if Green Bay does decide to release Finley. Quarless has Finley’s size, but he missed the entire 2012 season while recovering from a serious knee injury. So, it would be risky for the Packers to count on Quarless to play significant snaps next season.
Tom Crabtree and Ryan Taylor are also on the roster, but the two of them are counted on mostly as run-blocking tight ends.
Given all that, the likelihood of Finley being back in Green Bay next season is much higher now than it was two months ago.
“I view it a learning curve in my fifth year,” Finley said. “I feel like I’ve got a lot of football left and this is just another chapter of my career. Hopefully next year I learn from it.”