Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley gets ready for Tuesday's training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
Everyone is singing the praises of tight end Jermichael Finley this training camp.
From the head coach, to the offensive coordinator, to his position coach, to the starting quarterback, all unanimously agree that Finley is playing some of the best football of his career.
“He’s having his finest training camp, I think it’s clear-cut,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy on Tuesday following practice.
Offensive coordinator Tom Clements took it a step further and said Finley’s improved performance started long before training camp.
“It’s not just this camp, the whole spring,” Clements said. “He’s been outstanding. He’s been working hard. I think he’s improved his blocking tremendously. He’s become a more detailed route runner. He’s finishing plays.”
In practice, Finley consistently will take short passes and after the play is whistled dead, run more than 50 yards to the end zone.
“It showed up in the game,” Clements said. “He caught some short routes and got big gains off of them. He’s practicing well and he’s playing well.”
In just three series with the No. 1 offense against the St. Louis Rams Saturday night, Finley caught four passes for 78 yards.
Finley said he put on 10 pounds since last season. The increased bulk and strength has made him a better blocker.
“We’re asking him to do the dirty work again that he wasn’t asked to do as much the last two years and I think he’s doing a good job of it,” McCarthy said.
Finley is in the final year of his contract and will be paid $8.25 million. He will earn every penny, based on the early reviews.
On more than one occasion during camp, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has gone out of his way to give Finley shout-outs.
“I think a guy like Jermichael Finley’s had an excellent camp,” said Rodgers last week. “It’s fun to watch him make some of the plays that he wasn’t making three or four years ago as far as being able to read a defense quickly and diagnosis it and get into his route. He’s been very consistent for us.”
Rodgers and Finley weren’t on the same page in their early years together, but that has changed dramatically.
“I’ve always been in a great place, this year I just feel better,” Finley said. “I’ve got (Rodgers) on my team. We’re getting it going off the field, that’s where it all starts, and he’s ready to get it going now.”
Finley is listed at 6-feet-5 and 247 pounds, although he’s probably a little heavier than that. He always has been a potential matchup nightmare for defenses with his size and speed, but the promise of an improved running game could open things up for Finley downfield.
“I know what that (West Coast) system can do for you, as far as pulling linebackers in, pulling safeties down, and opening up those seam routes,” said Packers tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot.
Added Clements: “(When) you can get some run action fakes, the defense has to at least pause or even play the run. That allows us to get downfield.”
Defenses also might be left guessing because of Finley’s upgraded blocking ability.
“Maybe teams played him a little bit more for the pass last year and they won’t be able to do that this year,” Clements said.
One of the knocks against Finley is his penchant for dropping passes, although he improved considerably in the second half of last season.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself,” Fontenot said. “He expects (a lot) from himself. He wants to be the best. That’s a great quality to have, so a lot of time my job is just relieving some of that stress.”
While a majority of the team participated in a lengthy special teams period Tuesday, Finley kept himself busy with Fontenot.
He worked on catching passes, then shifted to blocking techniques and followed that with some extra stretching with assistance from a member of the Packers’ training staff.
The one-on-one catching sessions began last year during the preseason and include some difficult passes from close range that are sometimes purposefully off-target.
“We just started tossing the ball around, having some fun with it,” Fontenot said. “Really started as just trying to have some fun and get back to the basics of ‘let’s play pitch and catch.’ It’s kind of expanded since then. We’ve gotten into more of a drill mentality. My main focus was just to have him relax catching the ball and not be stressed out and tense and worried about what’s going to happen if I don’t.”
Finley isn’t perfect. He dropped an easy pass during a fundamental drill, which drew a reaction from the crowd at Nitschke Field. But Finley’s focus was evident throughout the 2¼-hour practice.
“He’s a guy that wants every single rep in practice,” Fontenot said. “I literally have to pull him out at times and give him a break.”
McCarthy praises Finley for his maturity, which is evident on and off the field.
In the locker room, he is far less likely to say something that will draw attention to himself.
When asked Monday about his more consistent play, Finley replied: “It starts on the practice field first and then in the classroom. If you do it in practice, it will show on the field.”
When asked how an improved run game will open things up for him, Finley said: “Not only for me, for the perimeter guys period. We’ve got (Eddie) Lacy back there, we’ve got (DuJuan) Harris. It’s going to be nice to see how they’re going to play us this year.”
The focus was on the team, while in the past it might have been on himself.
“I know we’ve had to talk about Jermichael on different topics, but this man approaches football the same way every day,” McCarthy said. “He’s a joy to coach.”
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