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Green Bay Packers Jermichael Finley shows promise as star tight end

Jul. 23, 2010
 
Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley grabs a pass during Organized Team Activities practice at Ray Nitschke Field, Wednesday, June 2, 2010.
Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley grabs a pass during Organized Team Activities practice at Ray Nitschke Field, Wednesday, June 2, 2010. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette
(click to enlarge)

Packers By Position

Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter Pete Dougherty will be focusing on a different Packers position each day going into training camp. The schedule is as follows:
&diams: Today: Receivers/tight ends
&diams: Saturday: Offensive line
&diams: Sunday: Quarterbacks
&diams: Monday: Running backs
&diams: Tuesday: Defensive line
&diams: Wednesday: Linebackers
&diams: Thursday: Defensive backs
&diams: Friday: Special teams

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The Green Bay Packers might have themselves a burgeoning star in Jermichael Finley.

The third-year tight end became a player of note the second half of last year and after a promising offseason could be ready to join the growing group of elite tight ends in the NFL that includes San Diego’s Antonio Gates, Indianapolis’ Dallas Clark, Dallas’ Jason Witten, San Francisco’s Vernon Davis, Tampa Bay’s Kellen Winslow and Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez.

In simplest terms, Finley later last season began showing the kind of playmaking talent that teams search for high and low. Then in the offseason, the Packers saw signs that at age 23 he might be ready to take off in 2010.

“He’s really taken ownership of the offense from a knowledge standpoint,” said Ben McAdoo, the Packers’ tight ends coach. “We’re working on the fundamentals and the details now, we don’t spend much time talking about assignments. That’s exciting because when you have a chance to polish up the way you play the game, that’s when you really make strides.”

Finley came into the NFL in 2008 as a talented but wholly unprepared rookie after his redshirt sophomore season at Texas, and the issue with him from the start has been maturity. He played only two seasons of college football at a college program that has a reputation for being something of a country club, and thus his rookie year was an unsurprising washout (six receptions).

But last year in training camp he showed flashes he might help the team, and after a midseason knee injury he emerged in earnest as a downfield receiving threat at tight end that the Packers have lacked going back to Keith Jackson in 1996.

In the final eight games of 2009, including the Packers’ playoff loss at Arizona, he caught 44 passes for 575 yards and four touchdowns. Over a 16-game season, that projects to 88 receptions, 1,150 yards and eight touchdowns, which among all NFL tight ends in ’09 would have ranked third, second and tied for fourth, respectively.

The remaining unknowns are whether he can sustain a high level of play over 16 games, and just what heights he can reach. Whether he’s crossed some sort of professionalism threshold over the past nine months will be proven on game days, but the Packers were encouraged this offseason by his improved attention to detail, which is one of the markers of how seriously a player is taking the game.

“I know he’s made a lot of strides in being a complete player so far this offseason, I’m not just talking these two (offseason) practices,” McAdoo said earlier this summer. “We’ve spent a lot of time together developing his fundamentals in all phases. He’s playing better. He’s fast in the pass game, his fundamentals are really starting to come together in the run game, which is big for us so teams can’t treat him as a big receiver, they have to respect us in the run game.”

Finley’s playmaking potential provides the Packers with a second receiver, along with Greg Jennings, who can put a scare into defenses, which in turn will force defensive coordinators to make even harder choices on where to slant their pass coverages.

That should help Jennings, who caught only four touchdown passes last season after scoring 21 touchdowns the previous two years, and have a domino effect on the rest of the receiving corps as defenses prioritize which player to try to take out of the offense. Among other things, ageless Donald Driver should have a good shot at putting up at least the kind of numbers he did last season (70 receptions, 15.2-yard average) even though he turned 35 this offseason.

Any decline in the obsessive-working Driver might not show up until well into the season, but the Packers saw no signs of concern for a receiver who has had at least 70 receptions in each of the last six years. Driver sat out offseason practices after having arthroscopic surgery on both knees in January and proclaimed this summer he feels like a new man.

“Common sense tells you eventually (age) will (catch up to him),” said Jimmy Robinson, the Packers’ receivers coach, this summer. “I’m not sure it has, I’m anxious to see with training camp. He’s not running around right now, but I think we’re going to see a new and improved Donald, he’s feeling better right now than he has in a long time with his knees.”

The Packers also have one of the deeper receiving corps in the league with fourth-year pro James Jones and third-year Jordy Nelson sharing the No. 3 receiving job. Neither did much last season that jumps off the page, but they combined for 54 receptions for 760 yards and seven touchdowns.

Last season both had some problems with drops — according to STATS, their drop per passes intended (Nelson’s 9.7 percent and Jones’ 9.5 percent) were worst on the team. But the Packers consider their hands to be strengths of both.

At tight end, Donald Lee figures to be Finley’s backup at a $2 million salary. Spencer Havner is in a fight for his life for a roster spot after his incomprehensible accident while doing doughnuts on a motorcycle sidelined him all offseason with a broken shoulder blade. The converted linebacker showed surprising ability both catching the ball and running after the catch in limited use last season (four touchdowns in seven receptions in ’09) and would be a special-teams core player if he makes the roster.

Rookie Andrew Quarless, a fifth-round draft pick, will be hard to cut because of his raw ability, but he might not contribute this year.

“We’re probably going to have a lot of conversations like we had a few years ago (about Finley) where we have a young guy who’s got a long way to go,” McAdoo said of Quarless. “Really there’s not a lot to talk about right now. He’s a young man that has to learn how to practice the right way, he’s got to learn how to keep his pads down, he’s got to learn the offense.”

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