jermichael-finley2

The problem with Jermichael Finley isn’t so much the fact that he’s sucked. It’s that he’s sometimes sucked compared to our expectations, and he’s been inconsistent.

So does the problem lie with our expectations, or him? Ummm, both?

Finley created those high expectations when he caught eight touchdown passes in 2011 while finishing with 767 receiving yards, both career highs. That yardage still fell into the vague area of good but well short of great when compared to Finley’s peers, as he finished 12th among all tight ends. But it was encouraging, especially after a 2010 season that was cut well short due to an injury, and Finley appeared in only five games. That made 2011 only his second full season as the Packers’ starting tight end.

There was reason for hope then, especially for fantasy purposes with Finley coming off the board far later than the elites like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. In ESPN leagues last summer, Finley finished the draft season with an ADP of 62.1, while Gronkowski threatened to creep into the first round with his ADP of 17.2 overall.

Of course, Gronkowski — or at least a healthy Gronkowski (ughhhhh) — has more than earned that lofty value, but at the time it was reasonable to say something like this to yourself: “hey self, why would you spend a second-round pick on a tight end when you can get the tight end that Aaron Rodgers throws to five rounds later, and he just put up 124 fantasy points last year?”. And if you thought like that, you weren’t wrong. You were also setting yourself up for a thorough scorching.

Finley was so bad that Tom Crabtree received a few more looks on routes up the seam. Though Crabtree’s receptions and targets were still highly limited overall, here’s all you need to know about Finley’s level of suck: prior to 2012 Crabtree had 99 receiving yards over two years, and then this past season — in one, singular season — that number jumped to 203 yards. It gets worse, as Crabtree averaged 14.5 yards per catch after averaging 9.9 throughout his career, and of his eight receptions in 2012, three of them turned into touchdowns.

That’s one more TD than what Finley had on 61 catches and 87 targets (Crabtree was still targeted only 12 times). You have to try hard to be that disappointing, and Finley dropped seven balls over the season’s first eight games, according to USA Today.

But then, something odd happened. Something which has us now questioning the very meaning of Jermichael Finley here now as the offseason chugs towards its conclusion, and we’re adjusting rankings and projections. He stopped sucking.

The improvement may not have been monumental during the second half of the season, but it was noticeable and encouraging nonetheless. He didn’t drop a single pass over the final eight games, and his average yards per game increased by nearly 20 (from 33.1 yards over the first half, to 50.3 in the second).

That significant uptick was the result of Finley doing what he’s designed to do: combine his natural athleticism with his heavy frame to pound away after the catch, and use his speed to find holes up the middle. Over the first half of the season there were five games when he didn’t have at least one chunky gain of 20 yards or more, which was lowlighted by a six yarder as his longest grab on five targets in Week 5. That number shrunk to a more reasonable two games without a +20 yard catch in the second half, which included a game when he averaged 22 yards per reception.

So which Jermichael Finley will stand up in 2013? That’s for our mystical overlords to decide. But I know this: a little more thuggery through weight gain is never a bad thing at the tight end position. Although he wouldn’t specific, that’s what Finley has done this offseason.

From Kevin Seifert, who observed this during the Packers’ OTAs:

Finley’s offseason weight gain was noticeable even to a casual observer at practice this week — and not in a bad way. After slimming down prior to the 2011 season, hoping to be used more as a receiver than a traditional tight end, Finley has re-packed the bulk onto his 6-foot-5 frame. No one was providing exact figures this week, but my educated guess is that Finley is now much closer to his listed weight of 247 pounds than he has been since 2010, when he was as low as 235 pounds.

“I think Jermichael looks excellent,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He has put weight back on. He’s back where I like to see him, the playing weight that he’s playing with. He’s stronger. He’s playing with more confidence. … I really like the offseason that Jermichael has put together so far.”

The fact that 2014 is a contract year for Finley could be a pretty nice motivator too. Money will do that.

Every time I examine any tight end, I have to make the obligatory mention of tight end streaming that’s been pioneered by C.D. Carter. Or maybe it wasn’t and I’m just haphazardly giving him credit, but he won’t mind.

However, if you’re not comfortable with that and rolling with the high upside yet unpredictable options like the Rob Houslers of fake football land, then Finley still presents a fine reward, and manageable risk with his current ADP of 107th overall in mock drafts.

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