A stronger, more physical Finley, who is earning rave reviews for his blocking and route running during training camp, should gobble up targets made available by offseason departures. And those targets may very well be quality ones with the Packers' improved ability to run the football in 2013.
Add in positive returns from this preseason, a sprinkle of chemistry with his quarterback and a burgeoning maturity, and Finley has all the ingredients he needs to not only earn his $8.25 million this season, but also set himself up for another big deal next spring.
Unlike previous years, the noise you've heard on Finley during camp hasn't come from the tight end's locker. Instead, all the talking is being done by his head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback.
"Physically, he's in a place where he wants to be and he's having his finest training camp," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said, via Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "I think it's clear-cut."
Offensive coordinator Tom Clements praised Finley's entire offseason.
"It’s not just this camp, the whole spring. He’s been outstanding," Clements told Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "I think he’s improved his blocking tremendously. He’s become a more detailed route runner. He’s finishing plays.”
Even quarterback Aaron Rodgers has went out of his way to praise his tight end.
“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,” Rodgers said, via Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee.
To be fair, Finley has been an annual recipient of training camp adoration. The results haven't always followed, especially the last two seasons.
Before suffering a season-ending injury in 2010, Finley was on pace for over 80 catches and 1,200 yards. He appeared poised to stake his claim as the NFL's next big thing at tight end, despite the injury.
But since returning in 2011, Finley has averaged roughly 58 catches and 700 yards a season, while also struggling with mental mistakes and inconsistency.
There was also his habit of providing drama-inducing sound bites at every turn.
However, the entire Finley dynamic feels different ahead of 2013.
No longer are the quotes coming from his locker the subject of daily headlines, signaling a growing sense of maturity and professionalism.
He also put on as much as 10 pounds this offseason to help as a point-of-attack blocker. He should be more than a finesse pass-catcher this season, while the extra weight should also make him harder to tackle after the catch.
The drops may still continue, and it's only reasonable to expect Finley to put a few catchable passes on the ground in 2013. But it's just as reasonable to expect Finley to see more targets and improve his numbers across the board.
The Packers offense currently has to replace targets from Greg Jennings, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason, and Donald Driver, who retired from football. The two combined for 232 targets over the last two seasons. Also gone is Tom Crabtree, the Packers' jack-of-all-trades tight end who hauled in eight catches for 203 yards and three scores in 2012.
There is suddenly an abundance of targets available, and if last Saturday's win over the St. Louis Rams was any indication, a significant percentage of those will be there for Finley's taking.
Over just three offensives series, Finley caught four passes on five targets for 78 yards. The one time Rodgers failed to connect with Finley came on a deep seam pass that sailed on the Packers quarterback. Had it been an accurate throw, a wide open Finley might have walked into the end zone.
The presence of play action certainly helped the Rodgers-to-Finley connection in St. Louis.
Thanks in large part to Eddie Lacy's 40 rushing yards on eight carries, Rodgers was able to complete 6-of-8 passes for 107 yards (116.7 passer rating) when employing a play-action fake. Three of those completions went to Finley, including hookups of 25 and 33 yards.
The 33-yard completion might have been the best example of how an improved play-action offense can help Finley dominate the middle of the field.
On Finley's final series, the Packers faced a 2nd-and-7 at their own 32-yard line. Green Bay lined up in the shotgun formation on both first and second down, with Finley as the in-line tight end, Lacy in the backfield and three receivers.
On first down, Lacy ran inside for three yards. On second, the Packers faked to Lacy, which drew both linebackers in and created a huge opening in the middle of the field. With the slot cornerback on the blitz, Finley turned his head as the hot receiver and Rodgers found him for an easy pitch-and-catch.
The Packers rarely created these kind of openings last season off play action, in large part because defenses simply didn't respect the run game. With Lacy in town, and late-season spark plug DuJuan Harris back in the mix, the Packers now have a rushing attack that defenses must at least pay attention to.
Finley conceded that fact.
“Not only for me, for the perimeter guys period," Finley said when asked how the run game will open up things in the passing game, via Vandermause. "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.”
Most observers of the Packers, both close and far, remain weary of Finley, and that's probably fair. The hype train following Finley has become an annual tradition in August, only to have the enigmatic tight end fail to reach the sky-high expectations and potential once the lights come on.
This season feels different. The praise for Finley has been too widespread and genuine, and the results have been abundantly clear, both on the practice field and during the preseason. Maybe, just maybe, the maturity light bulb has come on, too.
Too many factors are in Finley's corner for him to put together another marginal season. In a contract year, Finley has all the ingredients necessary to finally produce his breakout campaign.
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