Expectations for Jermichael Finley were sky high two seasons ago. People were more willing to say he was on the verge of becoming an All-Pro performer back then.
Coming off his sophomore 2009 season in which he had 55 catches for 676 yards and five touchdowns in only 13 games, some fans were ready to anoint Finley as the next coming of Antonio Gates.
In 2010, however, a torn meniscus landed Finley on injured reserve, and the Packers won the Super Bowl without him. Then in 2011, he did little to improve upon his 2009 numbers.
Enthusiasm has been tempered for Finley. It seems as if fans are willing to acknowledge he's a top-10, top-15 tight end in the NFL, but gone are the top-five predictions or higher. He's too inconsistent, is the argument.
That will suit Finley just fine in 2012. Entering his fifth season in the NFL, he's another year more experienced and finally ready to be named to the NFL's All-Pro team.
And the lower expectations will actually work in his favor.
Where does Finley rank among other NFL tight ends?
Focus Will Be on Wide Receivers
There were times when Finley took away attention from the wide receivers on the team. It's a big part of the reason why Jordy Nelson exploded onto the national scene with over 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns last year and Greg Jennings has put up big-time stats for the past four years.
The wide receivers of the Packers are no doubt grateful for what Finley did for them, but the favor will be repaid in 2012.
Due in part to Finley's own inconsistencies and also to the big-time talent of the wide receivers, things will come full circle, and Finley will be the recipient of less coverage help over the top.
Jennings has been considered the No. 1 target on the Packers for several years, which figures to continue. But after the season Nelson had last year, he's not going to creep up on anyone.
Between the Packers' top two receivers, they should draw the attention of some safeties to help take away the deep ball, which should open things up for Finley over the middle.
Opponents also got a peek at the explosive ability of Randall Cobb last year, and he figures to only get more and more attention as his role expands.
Negatives Are Overrated
No one's going to deny that Finley dropped his fair share of balls last season. And he's also had some issues with immaturity, but the extent to which those drawbacks have an impact on Finley's game are exaggerated.
Finley dropped 13 passes out of 103 thrown his way last year, according to stats reported by Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, most of them coming in the second half of the season.
But as reporter Bob McGinn notes, Finley dropped only seven out of 117 passes his first three years in the NFL. The odds that his problems with drops continue are not exactly high.
McGinn also makes the case that Finley was pressing last year because of an expiring contract. But after signing a two-year contract extension in the offseason, Finley's mind should be at ease.
As far as the maturity issues go––or lack thereof––Finley's comments may come off as annoying, but they're relatively harmless.
He tends not to have a filter on his mouth, and things don't always come out the way he probably intends them. But one thing Finley is not is a locker-room cancer. And he's never been in trouble with the law.
Head coach Mike McCarthy put it nicely when he spoke to the media during the team's minicamp back in June. “There’s different personalities throughout your football team. Him and I are different in that way, obviously. But he means well.”
Finley's Talent Speaks for Itself
It would be just plain foolish to argue against Finley's athleticism. Even the crudest talent evaluator can tell Finley has elite-level skills. It's always been an issue of putting it all together.
He's got the height, and his speed is decent as far as tight ends go.
But among Finley's best qualities is his ability to use his big body to shield defenders away from the football. He also does a good job of going up and catching the ball at the apex of his jump. Both qualities are demonstrated nicely in the embedded highlight video.
People might forget how young Finley actually is. Because he applied for the draft as an underclassman, he's now only 25 years old.
With four years of experience under his belt, Finley is a good bet to put all those raw skills together with some consistency, which should allow him to join the upper echelon of NFL tight ends with the likes of Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots and Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints.
To take it one step further, Finley will also benefit from an entire offseason to work on his timing with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, which he claimed was an issue last season in a June interview with the Journal Sentinel.
"Having an off-season, having chemistry with your quarterback is a big key to success," Finley said. "I promise you."
With all these factors working in Finley's favor, he's about to break out entering the prime of his career.
No one's claiming he's necessarily going to be named first-team All-Pro, but barring injury, Finley will at least be in the "receiving votes" category in 2012 with the potential for even higher recognition in coming years.