Jermichael Finley announced his retirement on Monday, almost two years to the date after sustaining a neck injury against Cleveland.
Finley might have dropped too many passes or been too outspoken for some tastes, but he was a special talent — something that has become obvious in the two years since the injury.
When healthy, Finley averaged 57 receptions for 703 yards and five touchdowns in 2009, 2011 and 2012. He was on pace for even bigger production before injuries struck in 2010 and 2013.
Whether it was going deep or taking a short pass and making a defender miss, what made Finley so dangerous was his athleticism. For his career, he averaged 12.5 yards per reception.
Of the 21 tight ends with at least 16 receptions thus far this season, only New England’s Rob Gronkowski (18.5 yards per reception), Carolina’s Greg Olsen (15.6), Cleveland’s Gary Barnidge (15.3) and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce (14.3) are averaging more than Finley’s career mark.
Of the 20 tight ends with at least 40 receptions in 2014, only four eclipsed Finley’s career average: Indianapolis’ Coby Fleener (15.2 average), Tennessee’s Delanie Walker (14.1), Gronkowski (13.7) and Kelce (12.9).
Richard Rodgers, the Packers’ third-round pick in 2014, has a career average of 10.1 yards, including just 9.0 this year.
With so many college programs running spread offenses, few true tight ends are entering the NFL. That no doubt is the major reason why the demand for tight ends isn't close to approaching the supply.
“The in-line tight end that's a great blocker and also receiver is getting more and more rare,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said before last year’s draft. “There just aren't that many. The guy from Dallas (Jason Witten) obviously has been doing it for years, (as has) Heath Miller in Pittsburgh. Those guys are disappearing, mostly because they're not coming out of the college game. Most everybody is a hybrid in college football these days.”
That’s evident when looking at the mediocrity produced by the last five drafts. While the Class of 2011 produced three Pro Bowl tight ends, Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph, Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron and Denver’s Julius Thomas probably wouldn’t be considered elite talents. The 2012, 2013 and 2014 drafts haven’t produced a single all-star.
Tight ends who entered the league in 2012, 2013 and 2014 have combined for four seasons of 55 receptions — a number Finley reached three times in the prime of his career — with Kelce catching 67 passes in 2014, followed by Larry Donnell (Giants, undrafted) with 63 in 2014, Zach Ertz (Eagles, second round, 2013) with 58 in 2014 and Mychal Rivera (Raiders, sixth round, 2013) with 58 in 2014. Donnell and Rivera averaged less than 10 yards per catch.
Of the tight ends from the last four draft classes — 56 draft picks plus an untold number of college free agents — Rodgers ranks sixth this season with 21 receptions. Rodgers, the sixth of 10 tight ends selected last season, leads the 2014 class with 41 career receptions and 21 this season.
The Class of 2015 doesn’t appear to be any better. Baltimore’s Maxx Williams, the first tight end off the board, leads the rookie crop with a meager total of 12 receptions for 108 yards. Nineteen tight ends were drafted; none of them have found the end zone and only three have more than five catches.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.