What Does a Healthy Jermichael Finley Offer to NFL Teams?

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistJune 9, 2014

USA Today

When then-Packers tight end Jermichael Finley had spinal fusion surgery last November, it wasn’t clear whether he would ever play in the NFL again.

He has been cleared by one doctor, per Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, but so far nobody has offered him a contract. Whether that means they aren't buying what his doctor said (Dr. Maroon, who SportsOnEarth.com writer Patrick Hruby points out flip-flopped on concussions) or weren’t happy with whatever they saw in their own medical checks, we don’t know.

Agent Blake Baratz tells PFT Live that Dr. Maroon has given Jermichael Finley full medical clearance.

— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) May 29, 2014

What we do know is that Finley feels he is healthy and ready to play. Assuming he is right, what does he bring to any team he joins?

For a guy measuring 6’5”, 247 pounds, Finley moves quickly and confidently down the field. He runs his routes swiftly and gains separation through both his speed and the route running itself.

On top of this, Finley can make some outstanding catches.

As you can see on the 2011 highlight video, Finley makes some tough catches look easy. He can make fantastic leaping grabs, and he also uses his body to muscle the ball away from defenders or shield them away from it altogether.

Finley has enough speed to line up as a “move” or “joker” tight end, essentially giving offenses an extra wide receiver.

While the “joker” has been around for a long time, the Patriots were the first team to really take advantage of the concept—which is likely why everyone thinks Finley will end up in New England—as well as the idea that it wasn’t nuts to run out two tight ends on a regular basis and not keep one or both in to block.

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were often split out wide with great success, and there is an argument to be made that it compensated for some shaky groups of wide receivers.

A “joker” can block but isn’t asked to a lot; it’s not his primary responsibility. That works to Finley’s advantage, since he’s never been the best or most willing blocker.

He seemed to be improving in that area prior to his injury, but there isn’t enough of a sample size to say “significantly improved.” Also, given the nature of his injury, there’s no telling if a team would be comfortable asking him to stymie linebackers and defensive linemen anyway.

Finley was used as a receiver enough to make the argument he should be paid like one back in 2012, while Jimmy Graham has a grievance hearing because he feels he shouldn’t have been tagged as a tight end, per Mike Triplett of ESPN.com.

So the downside is, any team that does sign Finley might be looking at a guy who wants more money than most tight ends get next time they negotiate contracts.

Back to the main point, though: A team that signs Finley gets an extra wide receiver, and a big one who is a difficult matchup for cornerbacks.

While a lot of teams seem to be moving toward longer corners, a tight end who plays wide receiver isn’t going to be someone the extra length is going to overcome all the time. They’re still going to have to contend with a guy who can be as fast as they are, but far heavier.

As much as we see guys like Jordy Nelson or Anquan Boldin excel at physical play, a guy like Finley reminds one much more of Brandon Marshall—someone who, when he puts his mind to it, is impossible for most corners to match up with.

For that matter, if he lines up outside and the defense is in man coverage, he is likely to see a safety covering him—someone else he is likely to be able to overcome the same way he does a corner.

image via Danny Kelly of SBNation.com

Most teams lack a player like Marshall at wide receiver, looking for players carrying less weight, as most of the time they are faster—something a lot more teams are interested in for their wideouts.

When it comes to tight ends, though, bigger is far better, and having a guy like Finley who can live outside is a bonus.

There are, of course, issues with Finley that go beyond the worry about his recovery.

As mentioned earlier, he’s not much of a blocker, so he could be limited in terms of what formations he is able to step into, which in turn can tip off a defense as to the nature of a play.

He also has had issues with drops.

According to SportingCharts.com, Finley had the most drops of any tight end in 2011 (though a lower drop percentage than Dallas Clark). He improved a ton in 2012, where he saw fewer targets but caught more of them, and seemed to be continuing to improve in 2013 before he was derailed by injury.

If Finley joins a new team, with a new quarterback and a new offense, a concern might be that he reverts to those 2011 numbers—especially after he hasn’t played a snap since his injury last fall.

Which brings us back to whether Finley is truly healthy and, just as important, whether he can stay healthy.

Neck injuries are no joke. When Packers safety Nick Collins had a neck injury, the team wouldn’t clear him and was concerned about his long-term health. Head coach Mike McCarthy said that if Collins were his son he “would not let him play,” per Jason Wilde of ESPN.com, via Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com.

Teams are clearly being somewhat cautious with Finley as well. In today’s NFL, the long-term consequences of playing football are always on people’s minds and teams are worried about lawsuits as well as anything else.

Finley wants to play, as does Collins—who is threatening to make a comeback, per ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky. They seem willing to overlook the potential risk for another shot at the league.

If a team feels comfortable with that and Finley, it could get a huge weapon for its passing offense.


**If you want to learn more about the "joker" tight end, you should check out Danny Kelly's excellent piece on the 2013 tight end draft class, which breaks it down really nicely.

Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him @andrew_garda on Twitter.