NFC North: Jimmy Graham

MANKATO, Minn. -- After the Minnesota Vikings named Norv Turner their offensive coordinator in January, it quickly became apparent that tight end Kyle Rudolph stood to become one of the biggest beneficiaries of the move. Rudolph had put together a solid start to his career in Minnesota, winning Pro Bowl MVP honors after his second season and catching 30 passes before breaking his foot in the Vikings' eighth game last year, but Turner's offense -- and his history of featuring tight ends in it -- stood to take Rudolph to a new level.

And that came at a good time for the tight end, too. He'd talked at the end of the 2013 season about wanting a contract extension in Minnesota, and said it several more times throughout the winter. But as recently as the beginning of this month, when Rudolph was working out with Larry Fitzgerald at the University of Minnesota, he gave some credence to the theory that it might be in his best interests to wait, put up a big year in 2014 and cash in before free agency next March.

[+] EnlargeRudolph
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsIn his three years with the Vikings, Kyle Rudolph has 109 catches for 1,055 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The Vikings clearly saw that possibility, too. Think of the five-year contract extension they gave Rudolph on Sunday night, then, as both a good-faith deposit and a mechanism to ensure some cost certainty.

Rudolph's production (109 catches, 1,055 yards and 15 touchdowns) as well as his reputation as a model citizen, had put him in line for contract extension talks. But if the Vikings had waited, and Rudolph had posted a 65- or 70-catch season, they might have been paying a higher premium to keep Rudolph off the free-agent market next spring. Instead, they got a deal done that could pay Rudolph up to $40.5 million, but presently carries a practical guarantee of just $7.46 million. He'll receive a $960,000 base salary in 2014, according to a league source, as well as a $6.5 million signing bonus.

There's another $12 million of guaranteed money, but that's currently slated to come to Rudolph in case of injury only, until it becomes fully realized at some point in the future if Rudolph is still on the roster on the third day of a given league year (or years, if the remaining guaranteed money is spread over several seasons). That's the same mechanism the New Orleans Saints used in Jimmy Graham's deal -- and Rudolph's guaranteed money is only $1.5 million less than Graham's -- but unlike Rudolph, Graham got $13 million guaranteed at the time of signing the deal.

The Vikings' deal with Rudolph (which was first reported by Fox Sports) means the tight end must still produce to unlock much of its worth. There's little reason to think he won't work to earn the money -- he's worked to get himself in better shape this offseason -- but the Vikings structured the deal in such a way that Rudolph won't get paid like one of the league's top tight ends unless he is playing like one.

Rudolph isn't as fast as Antonio Gates or Jordan Cameron, two other tight ends who have excelled in Turner's offense, but he's a 6-foot-6 target who has caught 11 of his 15 career touchdowns in the red zone. Playing at 258 pounds instead of 273, he could work the middle of the field more effectively and produce big chunks of yardage. That the Vikings gave him an extension now, before he has played a down for Turner, shows they think it's a distinct possibility Rudolph will take the next step. They won't be fully committed to the deal, though, unless he does. It's a show of faith, but with mechanisms to limit the Vikings' exposure. That's good business, and in the NFL, that's as fervent as faith gets.
It likely won’t be an issue for a half-decade with the Detroit Lions, and by then much might have changed in the NFL and how tight ends and bigger wide receivers are viewed.

But there has to be a lot of interest in what is going on down south in New Orleans right now, where the Saints are in a grievance hearing with tight end Jimmy Graham, who is trying to be labeled a wide receiver for franchise tag purposes instead of a tight end.

Up until May, this would not have been an issue in Detroit. By the time Brandon Pettigrew's next contract is up, he will be old enough that the team won’t use the franchise tag on him. Joseph Fauria has not shown enough at this point to warrant the tag.

But in May the Lions drafted Eric Ebron, a fast, rangy, tight end who made the majority of his plays in college lined up essentially as a wide receiver. And the Lions are implementing an offense similar to what New Orleans runs -- one where Graham has been utilized all over the field in varying ways -- so how the ruling comes down could be of massive interest for Detroit’s distant future.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Ric TapiaJimmy Graham's desire to be labeled a wide receiver could impact receiving tight ends across the NFL.
If the Saints win the grievance, the Lions will have precedent if Ebron pans out and the team needs to eventually use the franchise tag designation to keep him -- six years from now. If Graham wins, though, it would make Ebron one of the players who would almost assuredly be in the same category in the future.

While Ebron has maintained he does not want to be the next Jimmy Graham or anything like that -- he has consistently said he’s Eric Ebron, not Jimmy Graham -- his role in the Detroit offense is going to be somewhat similar to how the Saints used Graham.

Though Ebron has the tight end designation, the way he plays is almost like a tall wide receiver both in his route running and where he will line up on the field. While he will have the same positional designation as Pettigrew, they won’t be used in the same way at all.

This is part of the evolution of the tight end from a player used primarily close to the offensive line or as an in-line player to someone utilized everywhere on the field, in-line, in the slot and on the outside. This is likely part of Graham’s argument now.

And it will likely be part of the conversation if Ebron ever reaches the point of a grievance. Yes, it is a distant future where much can change between now and then since only two coaches in the Super Bowl era have lasted with Detroit to a sixth season -- Wayne Fontes and Monte Clark -- but the team is hoping Ebron’s skills transcend whatever happens with the franchise.

Of course, the team drafted him to help them win.

So decisions like this are worth paying attention to -- and even Ebron himself acknowledged Wednesday that he is watching what is happening with Graham in New Orleans.

“Really Interested To See What Happens To Jimmy Graham,” Ebron tweeted Wednesday morning.

He likely isn’t the only one within the Lions organization with a major interest in the outcome.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Eddie Lacy is many things -- the Green Bay Packers' standout running back, the reigning NFL offensive rookie of the year and one of the most popular young players in the league.

Could he be the next face of the EA Sports Madden video game?

The 2013 second-round draft pick who last season set a Packers rookie rushing record with 1,178 yards is one of 16 players vying for the honor to be on the cover of the upcoming Madden '15 game.

The winner will be determined by fan voting based on head-to-head matchups. Lacy must outgain New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in order to move on to the next round. First-round voting, which can be done by clicking this link, ends Thursday.

Perhaps if Lacy moves on, he will take his Madden cover campaign to video in the form of these highly entertaining spots with other finalists Andrew Luck and Alfred Morris. Check out Luck's video here and Morris' video here.
Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson Getty ImagesGreen Bay Packers receivers Randall Cobb (18) and Jordy Nelson are both in line for raises as they enter the final season of their current contracts.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- At some point in the next 11 months -- likely sooner rather than later -- the Green Bay Packers will extend the contracts of receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.

Between now and when they scribble their names on their new deals there will be much discussion about each player's value.

Myriad factors come in to play during contract negotiations, but the most important ones are production, injury history (which is usually tied to production) and age (which can be tied to injury history).

Another factor you might hear thrown around when it comes to Cobb and Nelson is the unscientific term "No. 1 receiver" -- as in should either one or both be paid like one?

In an ESPN Insider piece, former NFL scout Matt Williamson helped define exactly what that term means .

He came up with four characteristics:

  • They need to have the ability to separate from man coverage, understand how to find the soft spots in zones and have very strong athletic traits.
  • They need to be strong, fast and play big, which often -- but not always -- can eliminate shorter wide receivers from this equation.
  • They must be productive, even when opposing defenses are scheming to take them out of the equation; No. 1 receivers can be uncoverable and never come off the field.
  • They must display the above traits with consistency.

What was perhaps most interesting about Williamson's list is that he came up with only 14 players in the NFL who fit his criteria.

"The term 'No. 1 receiver' is often thrown around loosely, but to me, there certainly are not 32 No. 1 receivers in the league just because every team has a favorite target," Williamson wrote.

Also, Williamson had two tight ends -- New England's Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham -- among his 14.

Among his 12 receivers, only four were among the NFL's top-10 highest-paid receivers (see the accompanying chart). They were: Detroit's Calvin Johnson (No. 1), Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald (No. 2), Chicago's Brandon Marshall (No. 6) and Houston's Andre Johnson (No. 8).

However, six of the 12 are still playing under their rookie contracts and will be in line for significant raises on their next deal.

Back to the cases for whether Cobb and Nelson belong in that same category as they enter the final season of their current contracts.

According to Williamson, one of them should be considered a No. 1 receiver and the other is close. Also, it's possible for one team to have two No. 1 receivers, Williamson wrote, as is the case with the Bears (Marshall and Alshon Jeffery).

The 6-foot-3, 217-pound Nelson cracked the list at No. 13 under the heading "Just ask their quarterbacks if they are No. 1 receivers." Williamson also put San Francisco's Michael Crabtree in that same category.

"With great size for the position, he is often mistaken for a possession weapon, however only three receivers converted more receptions of 20 or more yards last year, Williamson wrote of Nelson. "His deep speed and big-play ability is vastly underrated, but Nelson also is Aaron Rodgers' go-to target when Rodgers needs a first down and has always proven to be reliable.

"Nelson had his best season in 2013, accumulating over 1,300 receiving yards, and bear in mind that he was playing without Rodgers for much of that time. He isn't a product of the system or his surroundings and would be great in any environment."

Nelson's next contract will be his third. Midway through the 2011 season, he signed a three-year extension that averaged $4.2 million per season. That average ranks 32nd among all NFL receivers in 2014.

Williamson ranked Cobb among 11 players who he termed as "close but not quite" No. 1 receivers.

Cobb, who like Nelson was a second-round pick, is entering the final season of his rookie contract. Two factors likely kept Cobb out of Williamson’s top 14: his size (5-10, 192) and that he missed 10 games last season because of a fractured tibia.

But in 2012, Cobb caught 80 passes despite missing one game, and there is room for growth. He is entering his fourth season but won't turn 24 years old until late in training camp this summer, making him more than 5 years younger than Nelson, who turns 29 in May.

The Detroit Lions are bringing back Brandon Pettigrew and this ensures one thing in Detroit: While the team will have an offense that might look schematically like the New Orleans Saints' offense, this guarantees it won’t be Saints-like.

At least not in the same construct of what New Orleans likes to do.

Pettigrew is not a Jimmy Graham-like tight end. He won’t stretch the field. He won’t create an obvious mismatch against anyone who lines up against him. Though Detroit had said he was a priority free agent throughout the offseason, he is a different type of tight end than Graham.

He is more of a dual-threat tight end, as much of a blocker as a pass-catcher. He was integral in Detroit’s running game as a player who can line up on the line of scrimmage as well as in the slot and even outside. His versatility and flexibility has been one of the more attractive things about him.

He will not, though, break a defense.

In his five seasons in Detroit, his longest-ever reception has been 35 yards. In 2010. He has had only four games in which he had a reception of 30 yards or more, and only one of them came after the 2010 season. Last season he had fewer yards (416) than any season but his rookie year, and also fewer drops (four) than any season in his career. His two touchdowns were his fewest since his rookie year.

He also had declining receptions the past two seasons after an 87-catch, 826-yard season in 2011.

While Pettigrew is still productive and still young enough at age 29, part of the reason Detroit might have brought him back is the lack of experience at the position otherwise. If the team had not kept Pettigrew, the only tight ends on the roster would have been Joseph Fauria, Michael Williams and Matt Veldman. Fauria and Williams were rookies last season, and of the three, only Fauria had any extended playing time or even caught a pass.

Williams spent last season on injured reserve and Veldman was signed for the last game of the season from the practice squad.

With a thin tight end market, there were not going to be any options better than Pettigrew available for Detroit to sign as a veteran. Owen Daniels, Jermichael Finley and Dustin Keller all could have been intriguing options, but they have significant injury histories that made them more of a risk than Pettigrew, who the team drafted in 2009. And Pettigrew has developed a rapport with quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Pettigrew’s signing also probably means the team might avoid taking a tight end early in May’s draft, although depending on how the Lions really feel about Fauria and Williams, it might not completely preclude them from doing so.

But this was the safe signing for Detroit. He was the player the team knew and the one the front office was the most familiar with. With little other options out there, it was also the one that ended up making the most sense.

Even if he can’t do some of the things the team might want him to be able to in the offense.
INDIANAPOLIS -- One by one, the top tight ends in this year’s NFL draft rolled through Lucas Oil Stadium as part of Thursday’s interview session at the scouting combine.

There was Eric Ebron of North Carolina, Jace Amaro of Texas Tech, Austin Seferian-Jenkins of Washington, Troy Niklas of Notre Dame, C.J. Fiedorowicz of Iowa and on and on.

Most, if not all, were asked which NFL tight end they admired, emulated or resembled.

For some, like Ebron, it was San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.

[+] EnlargeEric Ebron
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsCarolina likely would have to trade up in the first round of the NFL draft to have a shot at selecting Eric Ebron.
For others, like Amaro and Fiedorowicz, it was the New England Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski.

For Seferian-Jenkins, it was the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham and the Denver Broncos’ Julius Thomas, who like him had a background in basketball.

Not one of them, however, mentioned Jermichael Finley.

Yet if the Green Bay Packers don’t bring back their starting tight end, which is a likely course of action given his neck injury and his expiring contract, one of those players could become the next Finley.

Most of the top tight end prospects said Thursday that they had either visited with the Packers or planned to talk with team representatives this week at the combine.

So too will Blake Baratz, the agent who represents Finley, but the Packers may have already decided that Finley’s neck fusion surgery was too much of a risk to bring him back. If that’s their plan, then there are plenty of viable options in this draft, which features playmaking tight ends of all sizes.

It starts with the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Ebron, who likely will be the first tight end taken in the draft and could be gone before the Packers pick at No. 21.

“I’m very fast; I’m very different,” said Ebron, who along with the other tight ends will do their on-field testing this weekend. “I play the tight end role like no one else.”

In some ways, he plays it like Finley, whose physical presence is similar to Ebron’s.

Amaro (6-5, 255) is as much receiver as he is tight end. Most of last season, when he caught 106 passes for 1,352 yards (the NCAA record for a tight end), he played standing up away from the line of scrimmage.

“That’s why I’m so unique,” Amaro said. “It’s kind of a revolution into the game and how the tight ends are coming in across the board. I like to see myself as both a tight end and a receiver.”

But can he block?

That’s not an issue with Fiedorowicz (6-5, 265), who was more of a blocking tight end in Iowa’s run-heavy offense.

“A lot of tight ends in the NFL are either blocking tight ends or receiving tight ends,” Fiedorowicz said. “I like watching Rob Gronkowski. He can dominate both the line of scrimmage and down the field.”

Seferian-Jenkins (6-5, 262) said he was asked to do both last season at Washington, where he played basketball as a freshman.

“At the tight end position, you’ve got a lot of great players [in this draft],” he said. “But what I think I do is if you watched me play, I split out and played receiver. I’ve done fullback. I’ve played in line. I think I’ve showed I’m very capable of being a playmaker down the seam and run regular routes as a receiver, and I’ve shown the capability of being a blocker.”

Niklas (6-6 , 270) might be the biggest bruiser of this bunch. He began his college career as an outside linebacker.

“I can block, and I enjoy blocking,” Niklas said. “I think it’s something I can use to my advantage.”

Further down the tight end pecking order is Jacob Pedersen of Wisconsin. He grew up just north of Green Bay in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He’s a late-round prospect who would love the chance to be the Packers' next tight end.

“Growing up 45 minutes away from Green Bay, obviously it’d be a childhood dream to play for your home team,” said Pedersen, one of six Badgers invited to the combine. “But I’m just hoping to get drafted by a team. Whoever takes me, they’re going to get my best effort.”
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- While complimentary of his accomplishments, Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett refused to indulge in comparisons with New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham.

Asked if Graham was a pretty good player, Bennett deadpanned: “I don’t give a [expletive].”

Graham was named the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Month on Thursday, marking the first time a tight end had received such an honor in either conference since 1986 when the NFL started the award. Graham hauled in 27 passes for 458 yards and six touchdowns in his team’s first four games, and according to ESPN Stats & Information is one TD away from tying the league record for touchdown catches by a tight end over a team’s first five games.

Antonio Gates (2010) and Mike Ditka (1963) currently share that record.

“A lot of guys play my position. I think (Graham) does a phenomenal job for the Saints, but I’m not in competition with him,” Bennett said. “We have different roles on our team. He’s the No. 1 target over there and I have different job from him. We’re different athletes. I think a lot of times people try to compare us but we do a lot of things differently. He does a good job going up for the jump ball, and making plays for them. He’s the No. 1 choice over there. I’m a team guy. Whatever I’ve got to do, if I have to block a little bit more, whatever it is, I’ll do that.”

Bennett appears to assume more responsibilities as a blocker in Chicago’s system than Graham in the scheme of the Saints, but the Bears have definitely incorporated him heavily in the passing game. Bennett is currently tied for fourth in the NFL among tight ends for touchdown receptions (3), tied for sixth in receptions (20) and eighth among players at his position with 225 receiving yards.

Bennett led the Bears with eight receptions last week in the loss to the Lions, and gained 90 yards.

“Everybody impacts differently. I don’t compare myself to (Graham). I don’t care what he does for his team. My role on my team, I make a different impact on this team. I have a different job,” Bennett said. “I don’t care if I catch 10 balls or two balls. As long as I make an impact, in the run game or whether it’s helping out in pass protection, whatever it may be. Just like everything else in life. Everybody makes an impact doing different things. Some of us make charitable donations, other people donate their time. There’s no wrong way to make an impact. There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.”
In conjunction with its Future Power Rankings, you might have noticed that's Insider group is posting its projected top 10 players at each position in 2016. Obviously it can't include those who haven't entered the league yet, but I was particularly interested in the tight end position given the number of relatively young and talented players we have in the NFC North.

As it turns out, analyst Gary Horton included only one of our division's tight ends Insider: the Minnesota Vikings' Kyle Rudolph, whom he ranked No. 2 overall behind the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham. That left out the Green Bay Packers' Jermichael Finley, the Chicago Bears' Martellus Bennett and the Detroit Lions' Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.

Here's what Horton wrote about Rudolph, who was an injury replacement to the 2012 Pro Bowl and wound up winning MVP honors:
"He is a gifted receiver with soft hands and he is Christian Ponder's favorite target. That should continue for years to come … if his QB plays to the level expected. Rudolph is a 'move' tight end who excels in space, and he is a tough defensive matchup. As much as his QB looks to him for a key play, this passing game doesn't stretch the field enough. Without Percy Harvin, can the guys outside threaten defenses enough to open things up for Rudolph? If that happens, the sky is the limit for him."
As we've discussed before, Rudolph's most important physical attribute is his enormous wingspan and catching radius. He stands a legitimate 6-foot-6, has 34-inch arms with enormous hands (10 3/4 inches). Any quarterback would love to throw to a player who has such a physical advantage over his opponents, and more often than not over the past two years, Rudolph has managed to catch passes that no defender could reach.

In terms of these rankings, it's worth noting that Rudolph is the youngest starting tight end in the NFC North. He'll be 26 in 2016. Finley and Bennett will be 29, Pettigrew will be 31 and Scheffler will be 33. That makes him easiest to project as a star in 2016. But the second-best tight end in football by then? That's where at least one analyst sees him going.

NFC North weekend mailbag

June, 2, 2012
Hey, whaddya say we throw together a weekend mailbag? Comments, questions, criticism and praise are always welcome through the mailbag, Facebook, Twitter or skywriting.

Via Facebook, Kona reacts to the latest lively comments from Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley: "oh goodness.. As usual, the media blowing things out of proportion…."

Kevin Seifert: In truth, those of us who are used to hearing Finley hardly blinked at his comments, which came after last Wednesday's organized team activities (OTA).

For those curious, Jason Wilde of offers a succinct rundown. Finley said that he and quarterback Aaron Rodgers "didn't have chemistry" in 2011, suggested he needs to "freestyle" more on the field instead of playing like a "robot" and insisted that Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are "going to have to show me a little more" before he assesses their level of play.

Some of those comments, particularly the one about chemistry with Rodgers, drew national attention. Here is what I'll say about them: We long ago learned that Finley has a way of making general sentiments sound more dramatic and that he rarely is as convinced about an assertion as he appears to be.

In the case of Rodgers, Finley was simply referring to their minimal work together last offseason because of the lockout. By "freestyle," he didn't mean he plans to ignore playcalls. He simply wants to play with more instinct, which is what the NFL's best players routinely do. On the other hand, I'm not sure if I can interpret his comments on Gronkowski and Graham other than to say he wants to see how they respond to defensive adjustments.

With all of that said, at some point Finley will need to clean up his method for public expression if he wants anything he says to be taken seriously. In Green Bay and around the NFC North, he's more or less viewed as a harmless loose cannon. But eventually something he says will strike a teammate or coach -- or opponent -- the wrong way, if it hasn't already. Trouble would ensue.

From a national perspective, there will be upwards of 2,880 players on NFL rosters this summer. It's too much to ask national media members and fans to know Finley well enough to brush off his words without taking a closer look.

Chris of Detroit questioned our criticism of Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew for not addressing his team's off-field issues in a public manner: I believe that you don't realize that Mayhew rarely addresses the media for good or bad. [Coach Jim] Schwartz is the face of the organization, he has and will always address such in-house issues. Since Mayhew took over he has addressed the media once before and after the season, rarely any other time especially with off the field issues. Mayhew has taken a lot of heat from local media for is lack of access to the media, however they all praise him for being consistent and allowing his coach to be the face of the franchise. While I agree that a GM should be held accountable for his draft class being in trouble, I give him credit for not being vocal during good and bad times as the Lions GM.

Kevin Seifert: Believe me, I'm well aware that Mayhew rarely speaks publicly and that the Lions' set-up calls for Schwartz to speak for the franchise on most matters. But I still don't think it's right for Mayhew to hide behind that structure in times of unique circumstances.

I fully understand why Mayhew wouldn't want to speak regularly. He wants his actions to speak for themselves and doesn't want to be put in a position to evaluate coaches and players in a public manner during the season. Rare is a general manager who comments on, say, a coach's decision to bench a quarterback or go for it on fourth down. And by all indications Mayhew maintains that policy on both a local and national level. It's not as if he has separate rules for different reporters or outlets.

I guess I just saw six incidents in five months to be beyond the daily operation and structure of any NFL team. It's not quite a crisis, but it is a dire-enough situation that team vice chairman Bill Ford called it "disappointing, very disappointing" and "a shame" last week.

I don't believe that Mayhew has an obligation to "to take the heat" from a throng of media because he "deserves" that punishment. Again, I thought it was unfair in this case for Schwartz to do all of the explaining and to be cast alone in the spotlight for something that is not only this serious, but also something an issue for which he does not have ultimate responsibility.

In the comments of this post on Chicago Bears offensive lineman Gabe Carimi, WINDYCITYWOMBRAIDERRETURNS notes that two first-round picks of former general manager Jerry Angelo -- Carimi and Chris Williams -- could "make or break the season."

Kevin Seifert: In a way, it's interesting to see so much discussion on the Bears' relative lack of attention to their offensive line when two former first-round picks could conceivably be among their five starters this season.

Our commenter is no doubt hoping that Williams makes a career comeback and overtakes the left tackle position from J'Marcus Webb. That might be too much to ask, and it's quite possible Williams is headed for a year as a swing left/right tackle before departing the franchise in 2013.

But even if that's the case, it's not clear if Webb has any better chance than Williams to develop into a fixture at left tackle. That circumstance places further scrutiny on Angelo's failed attempt to lock down the position with Williams five years ago.

Brandon of London, Canada, remains concerned about Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder after reading this post: While I would usually 100% agree with your feeling that you can't read too much into OTA's and off-season practices etc., but shouldn't the Vikings be extremely concerned that Ponder cannot even succeed when there's 0 pressure against their historically last bad secondary of last season (plus a few rookies)? Shouldn't now be when he's wowing people and being over-hyped?

Kevin Seifert: There is something to be said for that. I mean, it's far more common to read enthusiastic coverage of a player lighting it up during spring drills than the other way around.

And to be clear, my post wasn't meant to suggest that Ponder struggled through the OTA that I watched. He had one really bad mistake that I saw, one that seemed rare even in this kind of setting. But he also made his share of nice passes. He was inconsistent, which isn't totally unexpected for a player going through his first NFL offseason, and I thought that positive/negative was implied in the "fits and starts" headline.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley just skipped through Lucas Oil Stadium, stopping to speak with a handful of reporters before meeting with general manager Ted Thompson here to finalize his new two-year contract.

Finley made clear that he didn't want to test the open market and couldn't envision a better situation for his future growth -- and another payday -- than Green Bay. As we discussed earlier Thursday, Finley could put himself in prime position in 2014, when the NFL's salary cap is expected to rise and two of the NFL's best tight ends, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski, probably will have signed lucrative extensions.

"It was a no-brainer to sign a two-year deal," Finley said, "and come back to the table at 26 when Jimmy Graham done hit it and Gronkowski done hit it and raised the market. I'm going to be back then, knocking on the door."

As a blog community, I think we can all say we're looking forward to it.
We've discussed several times the possibility of a precedent-setting offseason fight between the Green Bay Packers and tight end Jermichael Finley. Namely: If the Packers make him their franchise player, could Finley justifiably argue he is a receiver rather than a tight end? The answer could be the difference between a $5.5 million tag and one around $9 million.

Neil Hornsby of Pro Football Focus has reconciled and further analyzed some numbers we introduced as part of last week's discussion. Finley is among a group of hybrid pass-catching tight ends who are used all over the field, according to Hornsby's film analysis, Finley could argue that he was aligned away from the tackle on 51 percent of his plays in 2011 and that he was in a 2-point stance on 60 percent of his plays.

Because Finley was lined up as a receiver on a mathematical majority of plays, Hornsby concludes: "In every measurable category Finley should be considered a wide receiver for the purposes of the tender."

That might be true from a technical sense. But from this vantage point, a more equitable challenge would be to request a new franchise classification that takes into account the way tight end play has evolved for some NFL teams. Finley, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are used differently than earlier generations. On the one hand, they are higher-profile and have more impact on the passing game than traditional in-line tight ends. But it's hard to consider them receivers when true receivers play nearly 100 percent of their snaps away from the line of scrimmage and in a 2-point stance.

In that scenario, the value of Finley's franchise tag could rise above that of tight ends but fall short of the one assigned to wide receivers.

I'm not sure if that will happen, but that possibility seems much more realistic than putting players like Finley in the same category as, say, Vincent Jackson of the San Diego Chargers or Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs. Stay tuned.

Franchise focus: Jermichael Finley

February, 14, 2012
First in a daily series on NFC North players who are candidates to receive their team's franchise tag. The window for tagging players opens Monday and closes March 5.

[+] EnlargeJermichael Finley
AP Photo/Morry GashJermichael Finley had a career-high eight TD catches in the first 16-game season of his career in 2011.
The Green Bay Packers have several candidates for their franchise tag, but most public discussion has centered around tight end Jermichael Finley. He is part of a Packers free agent class that also includes quarterback Matt Flynn and center Scott Wells, but the price tag for quarterbacks (projected to be $14 million) makes Flynn a less likely franchise target. Conventional wisdom, meanwhile, suggests the Packers should be able to reach an amicable long-term agreement with Wells.

Finley's case is interesting on several levels. As we noted during the regular season, the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement changed the calculations for franchise tags in a way that makes it a more attractive tool for the Packers to retain Finley's rights. The franchise tag is no longer the average of the five highest-paid players at a given position. Instead, it is the average of the highest salaries at the position over the past five seasons.

Franchise numbers for 2012 haven't been announced, but it's expected to be around $5.5 million for tight ends. From a team standpoint, that figure is quite reasonable for a 24-year-old tight end who caught a career-high eight touchdown passes in the first 16-game season of his career in 2011. From a financial standpoint, most NFL teams would be happy to lock up an ascending free agent tight end for $5.5 million in cash and salary-cap commitment.

Is there anything Finley can do to fight that eventuality, short of holding out? Although neither Finley nor his agent have spoken publicly about it, several media outlets have suggested the possibility that he could declare himself a wide receiver, based on how often the Packers use him in the slot or split wide. That designation would qualify Finley for a significantly higher franchise number, perhaps double the one for tight ends, and give him more leverage in a long-term negotiation.

There is some precedent for appealing the position classification for franchise players. In 2008, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs spurred the NFL and NFL Players Association to create a new defensive end-linebacker position for the 3-4 scheme. The change elevated his franchise value by about $500,000.

According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Finley lined up as a receiver on a little less than half of his total snaps in 2011 (roughly 409 of 883). I'm not sure if he could argue he is a wide receiver, but you wonder if the recent trend toward receiving tight ends -- led by the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski and the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham -- might eventually lead to a new hybrid franchise tag.

In the end, Finley's value lies in his production relative to his position. He had one of the better seasons for a tight end in the NFL last season, catching 55 passes for 767 yards to go along with the eight touchdowns. But if you applied those numbers to a receiver, they would hardly be considered elite.

It's usually a better situation for all parties to find common ground on a long-term contract. But unless the franchise tag for tight ends turns out to be much higher than projected, the Packers are in a fine spot with one of their best players.

Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

January, 16, 2012
After the Green Bay Packers' 37-20 playoff loss to the New York Giants, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Head Exam
    Kevin SeifertFollowing their loss to the Giants, the Packers take a seat in the examination room.
    Some of you thought I affixed too much blame for the defeat on the Packers' offense. The defense, of course, had trouble tackling Giants ball carriers all afternoon and gave up a touchdown on a Hail Mary that "should never happen," cornerback Charles Woodson said. But isn't that the way the Packers' defense played most of the season? Time and again, the offense's elite play overcame what was an ordinary defense. To me, it was always on the offense to carry this team to the Super Bowl. Its stunning failure Sunday, mostly through unforced errors, explains why the Packers are at home Monday. With that said, however, the Packers should take a long big-picture look at their defense this offseason. Coordinator Dom Capers has now sandwiched two alarmingly porous seasons (2009 and 2011) around a championship-caliber year in 2010.
  2. Tight end Jermichael Finley might have complicated his offseason with a case of the dropsies that continued into the playoffs. Our friends at ESPN Stats & Information tend to have a high standard for what constitutes a drop, but they had Finley with eight during the regular season -- the third-highest total in the NFL. Finley remains a matchup nightmare, and it's worth noting that the Giants had these words written on a whiteboard in their locker room at Lambeau Field: "Play physical football and beat the hell out of number 88." (Thanks to NFC East blogger Dan Graziano for that one.) Obviously, Finley was front and center in the Giants' defensive focus. I don't think the drops will change the way the Packers evaluate his future, and the relatively low franchise figure for tight ends -- around $5.5 million -- gives them a reasonable option for 2012. But I think we can all agree that Finley's season ended somewhat short of expectations that he would blossom into the NFL's best tight end.. The Packers' star-studded offense requires distribution of the ball, minimizing individual statistics. But if you're talking about the NFL's best tight ends, you probably mention at least three others -- Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski -- before you get to Finley.
  3. If Sunday was Donald Driver's final game with the Packers, he spent it providing evidence that he can still help someone in 2012. Driver was a part-time player in 2011, catching 37 passes while playing on about half of the Packers' plays. He'll turn 37 next month and has one year remaining on a contract that calls for a $2.2 million roster bonus and a $2.6 million base salary. Assuming 2011 second-round draft pick Randall Cobb continues his development, it's hard to imagine the Packers bringing Driver back with compensation totaling $5 million. But Driver's legs looked lively and his hands were reliable as ever in a three-catch, 45-yard performance Sunday. He told reporters that he doesn't plan to retire, and you would think another NFL team would be interested in the depth he could provide.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
The Packers had gained a bit of momentum and tied the score at 10 early in the second quarter. I didn't feel they had gained control of the game, but I didn't think the Giants were in control, either. So it's difficult to find a conventional explanation for why Packers coach Mike McCarthy called for an onside kick at that point. If he thought he could catch the Giants unsuspecting, he was wrong. According to New York media reports, the Giants had worked on the exact type of onside kick during practice Friday. McCarthy didn't directly explain himself when asked Sunday, saying only that he was "trying to put … players in a position to make an impact play." That moment was the first alarm bell of the game for me. Why didn't McCarthy trust his offense, or defense for that matter, after a conventional kickoff? Usually that's a move reserved for coaches who think their team needs a boost. The move didn't cost the Packers any points, but it was the first time I thought the Packers' season might soon be coming to an end.