A career-threatening neck injury has kept tight end Jermichael Finley in the shadows of free agency, where the uncertainty of his recovery timeline has left him without as much as an offer from one of the 32 NFL teams.
Yet when healthy and finally cleared, Finley should immediately become the best free agent still available on the market. And for teams that don't find a suitable tight end in May's draft, a healthy Finley might be the rare late addition—a player capable of taking over as a starter and producing difference-making numbers.
Getting cleared is the first hurdle. Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in late March that Finley was still "two months away and maybe several months more" from getting the necessary clearance. Teams don't need to wait for a clean bill of health to sign him, but it seems unlikely any club would give him competing money without knowing his bruised spinal cord and fusion surgery has shown significant progress.
No Giving Up!— Jermichael Finley (@JermichaelF88) April 25, 2014
Finley failed a physical with the Seattle Seahawks as recently as mid-March, per Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press Gazette.
Josina Anderson of ESPN reported in early April Finley was due for X-ray and MRI updates, each of which were expected to be completed within two weeks. While both tests have likely been executed, no medical progress report has been provided by Finley's camp. And despite the the tests being distributed to interested teams, no renewed intrigue has been reported. It's certainly possible Finley still has much healing and waiting to do.
What was the objective of the new testing? Bleacher Report's Will Carroll helped provide some insight on the healing process.
"They're looking to make sure that the fusion is complete, that the hardware they installed has fully 'seated'," Carroll said. "Since they drill it into bone and then essentially cement it into place, they want to make sure it's locked in there. It's very easy to tell that on X-ray."
Finley had his C-3 and C-4 vertebrae fused together after a scary collision with Cleveland Browns safety Tashaun Gipson on October 20 of last year. He suffered bruising on his spinal cord, underwent surgery and missed the rest of the season.
His MRI results also have importance.
"The MRI is probably looking for the spacing of the nerves and that they are free and clear," Carroll said. "There could have been some other soft tissue damage or they're looking to make sure the discs above and below aren't impinged now."
Others that have had similar injuries and surgeries include Colts running back Ahmad Bradshaw, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain. Bradshaw had the fusion surgery six months ago and remains on the comeback trail. Manning missed an entire season. McClain sat out 10 months.
Finley's teammate, safety Sean Richardson, had his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae (lower down the neck) fused and missed almost 11 months of football.
Some teams may shy away from clearing Finley, fearing his fusion—which was higher up his neck—does not have the necessary stability above the fusion point for him to continue playing football. For example, former Packers safety Nick Collins had his C-3 and C-4 vertebrae fused in 2011 and hasn't played since.
But if teams are comfortable with the healing and future projections, Finley could provide starter's talent at a position growing in importance.
He never did realize his full talent in Green Bay, thanks mostly to injuries and bouts with inconsistency. He missed 11 games after a strong start in 2010 to knee surgery, and his 2013 season was cut short with Finley on pace for a career high in touchdowns.
Over two healthy years in 2011 and 2012, Finley averaged 58 receptions, 717 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers would have finished 11th in receptions and yards and tied for 12th among tight ends last season. Not Pro Bowl numbers, but serviceable starter statistics for sure.
He looked well on his way to a big season in 2013, when he caught 25 passes for 300 yards and three scores over his five full games (he missed all but one series versus Cincinnati due to a concussion). Over a full 16-game season, Finley's 2013 averages extrapolate out to 80 catches for 960 yards and almost 10 touchdowns. That's a Pro Bowl appearance for a tight end during most seasons.
He was playing his best football before the neck injury last season.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Finley averaged 9.5 yards after the catch in 2013, which led all tight ends through the first six weeks. He also forced 10 missed tackles, which also led the position at that point in the season. For context, consider Finley actually finished the year ranked seventh in forced missed tackles, with Martellus Bennett leading the way with only 23.
Here's one example of Finley taking a mostly simple play and turning it into six points:
He receives a short dumpoff in the right flat and wills his way into the end zone, bouncing off a tackle attempt from Perrish Cox and beating Donte Whitner near the goal line. Not many tight ends in the game today can turn the corner, break a tackle and find the end zone like Finley did here, especially against a defense like the 49ers.
A week later, Finley found himself in the end zone again:
Originally covered, Finley spins away from the tight coverage and gives his quarterback a big target in the end zone. The throw isn't a difficult one for Aaron Rodgers, mostly because he can elevate the football and remain confident the 6'5" Finley will be able to high-point the catch. It's Red Zone Receiving 101 from Finley, and it results in six easy points for the Packers offense.
Finley may never scratch the upper limits of his once limitless potential, and he's now an obvious health risk. But provided he eventually gains medical clearance, few tight ends in the 2014 draft will provide as much bang for the buck. And there certainly isn't a player at the position left in free agency with Finley's array of receiving talents.
Also, Finley is only 27 years old. If his neck stabilizes and allows him to continue playing the sport, he could have several more good years left in his tank.
Teams will likely have to wait until after the draft to sign Finley, who might not have a good handle on his progress until well into the summer. There's obvious risk in bypassing the tight end position in the draft and waiting on Finley. But there's always a place in the NFL for athletic pass-catchers, especially at tight end.
If cleared, Finley is going to be in demand. In the meantime, the best remaining free agent on the market will have to wait until the shadow of his recovery timeline finally clears up.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.