Green Bay Packers' Jermichael Finley pulls down a long reception during the first quarter of the Sept. 19, 2010, game against the Buffalo Bills at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Position analysis series
Pete Dougherty breaks down the Packers by position heading into training camp:
Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr.
Randall Cobb WR 5-10 191 R
Tom Crabtree TE 6-4 245 2
Donald Driver WR 6-0 194 13
Jermichael Finley TE 6-5 247 4
Spencer Havner TE 6-3 250 3
Greg Jennings WR 5-11 198 6
James Jones * WR 6-1 208 5
Jordy Nelson WR 6-3 217 4
Andrew Quarless TE 6-4 252 2
Antonio Robinson WR 6-1 195 1
Brett Swain WR 6-0 200 3
Ryan Taylor TE 6-3 254 R
Chastin West WR 6-1 216 1
D.J. Williams TE 6-2 245 R
* — unrestricted free agent
Last year, it was evident from early in training camp the Green Bay Packers were building their passing game around the unusual talents of tight end Jermichael Finley.
Losing a playmaker of that caliber to a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 suggested the Packers, though still talented, weren’t a big threat to win the Super Bowl.
But along the way to the fourth Super Bowl title in team history, the Packers rediscovered how big a weapon they have in receiver Greg Jennings, who though not forgotten early in the year, had taken on a No. 2 role.
With a talent such as Finley back this year, assuming there are no lingering problems from surgery to repair a torn meniscus and a second operation to stem an infection, the Packers should be even better on offense than last season. In the 2010 regular season they were good (No. 9 in the NFL in yards, No. 10 in points), and by the postseason they were among the league’s best with four-game playoff averages of 28.8 points (that excludes Tramon Williams’ interception return for a touchdown against Atlanta) and a healthy 361.3 yards.
That the Packers won the Super Bowl without Finley should make him a hungrier and more humble player, which will only help. But coach Mike McCarthy still faces a challenge integrating Finley into an offense that was in a great rhythm down the stretch last season, even if it’s the kind of challenge every coach wishes he had.
McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers will want to make sure Jennings gets his share of chances to make plays, which they know can win them games, while also taking advantage of the mismatches Finley presents against anyone covering him.
Last year, McCarthy was still feeling that out when Finley was injured on the game’s second play in Week 5 at Washington. In the previous four games, the Packers averaged a healthy enough 26.5 points, and Finley was first on the team in receiving yards (301) and tied with Donald Driver for the lead in receptions (21). Jennings, on the other hand, had only 12 catches,on pace for only 48 in 16 games.
More subjectively, the Packers’ offense early on, while good, wasn’t the juggernaut it looked like it might be in the preseason. The four-game point total was inflated by a 34-point day against a bad Buffalo Bills team that was breaking in a new coaching staff, and the offense didn’t function with the rhythm it would later in the season.
Over the last 16 games, playoffs included, Jennings had 85 catches and a 16.6-yard average.
There’s every reason to think that if Finley had stayed healthy, McCarthy eventually would have found a more optimal balance as the season went on, based on his history of in-season adjustments. Early in 2007, the coach successfully went to a more spread passing offense when it was apparent he couldn’t run the ball, and halfway through 2009 he adjusted his play calling to help end a sacks epidemic.
Wherever that optimal balance is, it probably includes the fourth-year pro Finley reaching a premier level of productivity among tight ends. Since 2000, only five tight ends have topped the 1,000-yard receiving mark: Tony Gonzalez (four times), Jason Witten (three), Antonio Gates (two) and Dallas Clark and Kellen Winslow Jr. (once each). Finley was on pace through four games for 1,204 yards receiving and 84 receptions, so even if his numbers go down a little, he’ll still be in elite company.
And Jennings, to be sure, has played too well for too long not to be a primary player. The sixth-year pro, who turns 28 in September, is among the NFL’s more unsung playmakers in recent years. Among all receivers who have played the last three seasons, he ranks No. 4 in the league in yards (3,670), No. 6 in yards per catch (16.4) and No. 7 in touchdowns (25).
Going back the last four years, he’s No. 4 in touchdowns (37), behind only Randy Moss (52), Larry Fitzgerald (41) and Terrell Owens (39), and ahead of such standouts as Roddy White (34) and Andre Johnson (33).
Behind Finley and Jennings, the Packers should be deep, though whether it will be the deepest in the league depends on what happens with free agent James Jones, and if he leaves, the impact of second-round draft pick Randall Cobb.
Jones’ star faded some last season because he dropped four or maybe even five passes that would have been long touchdowns, including late in the season against the New York Giants and then in the playoffs against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But he’s also been a good, physical receiver who’s made his share of plays with 82 receptions and 10 touchdowns the last two seasons combined.
The Packers would like to bring him back, but their depth at that position and several expensive re-signings of premier players coming up in the next couple of years makes his return questionable at best. There’s a good chance another team will pay him to be a full-time starter, whereas the Packers’ offer likely will reflect he’d be sharing time with Jordy Nelson and Donald Driver as the Nos. 2 and 3 receivers.
The Packers also have given no indication they’re considering sacrificing the 36-year-old Driver so they can keep Jones, so the best guess is, Jones will leave in free agency.
Driver, a 13th-year pro whose longevity stems from his freakishly springy legs, is nearing the end of the line in his distinguished career. Last season he had his highest drop rate in three years (8.1 percent, seven drops) plus a stubborn thigh injury in the regular season and game-ending sprained ankle in the Super Bowl, all signs that Father Time is closing in.
Though Driver probably will remain the starter in name, it’s a good bet Nelson will become the de facto No. 2 based on last postseason, when he tied Jennings for the team lead in receptions with 21. Nelson still shows some inconsistent hands, but despite three drops in the Super Bowl, he played a major role in the Packers’ win with nine catches for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Cobb figures to play regularly as the team’s primary return man, and if Jones leaves in free agency could get some snaps as a slot receiver and more extended playing time depending on injuries. The second-round pick, who ran the 40 in 4.46 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, had 84 receptions and a 12.1-yard average plus 55 carries for a 7.7-yard average in 13 games for Kentucky last season.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.