Ordinary or Special?

The NFL is becoming more and more stocked with dynamic tight ends. Jermichael Finley would seem to fit that mold. Or does he? Matt Tevsh offer his thoughts on Finley with the 2011 season as the backdrop.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson has a big decision coming up on free-agent-to-be Jermichael Finley.

Should Thompson offer him a long-term extension?

Should he use the franchise tag on him?

Finley's ability should make him a sought-after commodity if he hits the open market. In 2011, he caught 55 passes for 767 yards and eight touchdowns — all among franchise best marks for tight ends in Green Bay.

Those numbers, however, fall short of many of the league's tight ends who are changing the position. They fell short, too, of Finley's lofty expectations.

"Jermichael and I talked about his year. He didn't feel great about the way it went," coach Mike McCarthy said at his season-ending press conference on Jan. 18. "He knows he has a lot of really good football in front of him. I think Jermichael is a very talented young man and I would emphasize young. He needs an offseason program — like a lot guys — and I think he'll continue to grow and be an outstanding football player for us."

But just how much will he grow?

In 2011, the Packers finally got a full body of work out of Finley. For the first time in his four-year career, he played in every game.

Using this past season as the backdrop, Finley's game as a receiver came more into focus. Here are some thoughts Thompson and the Packers might want to consider when evaluating Finley's worth:

Where He's Ordinary: Hands

Finley has been praised for catching nearly every pass thrown his way in training camp and practice. But when it counted the most, in the games, he had way too many mishandled balls. Finley was among the top five in the league in drops and No. 1 among tight ends with 12 in 91 targets (according to Pro Football Focus). With 55 catches, his catch percentage was just 60.4 percent. Twenty-four other tight ends in the league who played at least 50 percent of their team's offensive snaps had a higher catch percentage than Finley.

Where He's Special: Red Zone

' Fortunately, Finley was pretty secure with the ball when it was thrown his way inside the 20-yard line. All eight of his touchdowns (third among NFL tight ends) came in the red zone, including three in a dominant Week 3 performance at Chicago. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Finley (6-foot-5, 247 pounds) uses his size well in a condensed area. With 10 catches inside the 20, he was tied for 10th in the league (according to STATS LLC) with, among others, Larry Fitzgerald and Jordy Nelson. His only glaring mistakes in the red zone were a dropped two-point conversion attempt at Atlanta and not being able to wrestle the ball away from Raiders safety Mike Mitchell in the end zone on a fade pass that turned into a rare interception for Aaron Rodgers.

Ordinary: Run After the Catch

Finley fights for yards against Amari Spievey.
Andrew Weber/US Presswire
Finley looked more like Bubba Franks than Super Bowl tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez with regard to his run-after-the-catch ability. Pro Football Focus has some interesting statistics on this, including Finley averaging just 4.4 yards after the catch per reception and breaking (or avoiding) only three tackles for the entire regular season. Of tight ends that played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps, Finley ranked just 21st in YAC average. Tight ends who had a similar number of receptions to Finley — including the Titans' Jared Cook, the Texans' Owen Daniels, the Redskins' Fred Davis, the Steelers' Heath Miller and the Panthers' Greg Olson — all had better YAC averages and broke (or avoided) more tackles.

Special: Dictating Defense

After Finley's dominant performance at Chicago, defenses began to adjust. Only a week later, the Broncos sought to eliminate Finley by keeping a safety over the top or to Finley's side for much of the game. While Finley was frustrated after that game — catching just three passes for 28 yards — the Packers' offense put together its highest output of the season with 507 yards (408 passing). The Broncos' coverage opened up the passing game for Greg Jennings, Nelson and James Jones, all of whom caught touchdowns. Finley's presence alone helped create big-play openings for Rodgers and fellow receivers all season.

Ordinary: Route-Running Details

No more was this evident than on a key third down in the fourth quarter of the playoff loss to the Giants. Rodgers missed a wide open Finley, who appeared to mis-time his route with the quarterback, causing Finley to stretch for the pass, eventually leading to a failed fourth down in Giants territory. Mistakes like those hardly ever happen between Rodgers and his other wide receivers. Additionally, after a one-catch game against the Buccaneers, Finley admitted to being "lackadaisical" against press coverage, an upfront but startling admission for a player of Finley's size.

Special: Improved Attitude

Finley showed signs of being a diva and locker room distraction back as a rookie in 2008. But he has grown as a player and as a person. Despite voicing his displeasure at times or displaying body language that would indicate as much on the field, Finley, just 24, made major strides with his maturity this past season. Not only was he stand-up about his mistakes, but he voiced his appreciation about playing for the Packers and his want to stay in Green Bay. He may not have said those things before. He also recovered well from a difficult knee injury in 2010 and overwhelmingly tweets positive comments on his active Twitter account, for whatever that is worth.

Ordinary: In the Slot

Finley's freakish athleticism allows the Packers to use him more as a receiver than as a traditional tight end. But this has become a trend around the NFL. Teams use tight ends split out, whether they are special athletically or not. Finley's 145 snaps as a slot receiver (according to Pro Football Focus) were tied for 12th in the league at the position. With just 12 catches on those snaps (in 22 targets), his catch rate was actually lower (54.5 percent) out of the slot than it was in other positions. The Packers used the other four tight ends on their roster in the slot position, as well.

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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