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There’s something different about Jermichael Finley this year. He’s not bashing opponents and teammates, and he’s concentrated on playing at a high level, something he hasn’t done the last two seasons. He must be acting like a true professional because he’s in his contract-year and wants the big bucks come next summer. But is he actually serious about his job or is this just a year long charade?

No one knows. Not even Finley, who has been as inconsistent with his work ethic as he’s been with his hands. That’s what makes him such a difficult but exciting player to evaluate for the Green Bay Packers, who need him to step up and play at the level he did a couple of years ago when he was one of the league’s most dangerous tight ends. If he’s finally turned the corner, he can become a dangerous weapon for quarterback Aaron Rodgers as early as Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers.

The Packers are visiting Candlestick Park this Sunday and face an athletic defense that features two of the game’s best inside linebackers, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, and a potentially shaky set of safeties.

Willis and Bowman are athletic and have the foot speed to match tight ends across the middle of the field, but the safeties are too aggressive or sometimes flat-out slow reading the game, making Finley a prime target for Rodgers.

If you’re unfamiliar with Finley, he’s quite talented. He can run short, and routes from various alignments. A couple of years ago when he was playing at his best, he was frequently isolated to one side of the field against cornerbacks, which he repeatedly abused. This preseason, he’s made plays from in-line and slot alignments.┬áHere’s an example of the latter from Week 2 against the St. Louis Rams.

The Packers are faced with 2nd-and-3 near their own 40-yard line. Rodgers is in the shotgun and is surrounded by “21″ (two backs, one tight end) personnel, which is spread across the field. Finley is the single tight end and is flexed out to the immediate left of the offensive line. He’s set to run a deep crossing route behind the three linebackers and strong safety, and in front of the single-high safety.

When the play begins, Finley takes three steps vertically and then rounds off his route inside, running past the shuffling feet of the strong safety and behind freelancing linebacker Will Witherspoon. Because of Witherspoon’s freelancing, Finley is able to find an opening near the right hash, where he catches the ball and scampers past another linebacker, this time rookie speedster Alec Ogletree, for 25 yards.

In Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks, he made another big play downfield, this time from an in-line alignment.

It was 2nd-and-7 and the Packers were lined up in a one back, shotgun set with two receivers evenly spaced out to Rodgers’ left and one to the far right. Finley was also to Rodgers’ right, lined up tight to the formation in a three-point stance and ready to run a vertical route through the heart of the Seahawks’ defense.

Before he would run the route, he’d have to shake off linebacker K.J. Wright. Wright and Finley are roughly the same size, both weighing nearly 250 pounds. At 6’5″, Finley has an inch on Wright, but Wright makes up for that with his athleticism. In short, this was a good matchup.

At the snap, Finley shot his right foot out and then his shoulders, releasing outside to avoid the rushing defensive end and the physical coverage of Wright. Turning out and then up just inside the 40-yard line, Finley slightly sunk his inside shoulder (left) and got a step on Wright. Now at the 35-yard line, with a safety rotating to the middle of the field, Finley bent his route inside and leaped up to catch Rodgers’ arching pass for a 22-yard pickup.

Finley’s vertical ability could be problematic for the 49ers’ linebackers and safeties despite their athleticism. The linebackers are able to matchup with him because of their aforementioned athleticism and speed, but they’ll eventually have to pass him off to the safeties, who sometimes lack discipline.

Strong safety Donte Whitner is very aggressive downhill and doesn’t consistently take proper angles in pass coverage, as seen in February’s Super Bowl loss against the Baltimore Ravens. In addition to Whitner’s woes, rookie free safety Eric Reid is at his best coming downhill and is sometimes too slow reading the game like his predecessor Dashon Goldson was.

Reid and Whitner’s downfalls could ultimately lead to a big day for Finley, provided he is focused on playing football. If he wants to earn a grand contract next spring, he’ll have to start living up to his potential this Sunday.

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