Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Nation [Print without images]

Friday, August 7, 2009
Packers' Finley is the real deal


Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
 
  AP Photo/Morry Gash
  Tight end Jermichael Finley seems poised to have a breakout season.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- All I could see from my vantage point was the No. 58 on the back of reserve linebacker Danny Lansanah's jersey. I knew there was someone standing behind him in the back of the end zone, and I saw that person's hands reach over Lansahah's head to snatch an Aaron Rodgers pass.

I couldn't see the number, but I had no doubt who it was. Over two days of Green Bay's training camp, after all, I had already seen tight end Jermichael Finley make two similar catches and a host of other "wow" plays. I'd already had a number of people insist that Finley is poised to be one of the Packers' breakout stars this season, someone who is as comfortable on the line of scrimmage as he is split out wide and who could force significant changes in the way defenses approach their offense.

Everything I've seen so far leads me to agree. Finley has rebounded from a shaky rookie season, one the Packers have attributed to immaturity. Built like an NBA small forward, Finley's speed and athletic ability have made him "unguardable" in the passing game, Rodgers said Friday. And coach Mike McCarthy said Finley's blocking skills have improved to the point where he can be deployed in any formation and for any role.

"I'm just excited and confident with what I'm about to get into," said Finley, a third-round draft choice out of Texas last season. "When I was at Texas, I used to look at Texas Tech's [passing scheme] and say, 'Man, I would love to have that offense.' And now, basically, it's come true. I'm just going to love it this year when the real games come."

Said Packers general manager Ted Thompson: "Historically the tight end has been huge in the classic West Coast offenses and I think sometimes we've gotten away from that a little bit. The idea is to get back to using those guys. It's difficult for defensive backs. Your skill guys outside are busy trying to handle [Donald] Driver and [Greg] Jennings."

Finley left Texas as an underclassman and didn't turn 22 until 3 1/2 months ago. His adjustment to NFL life was steep. He hit one particularly egregious bump after criticizing Rodgers and the Packers' offensive coaches after a close loss at Tennessee. Suffice it to say that all has been forgiven.

"It's nice when they grow up," McCarthy said. "He was just so young last year. ... When you think about it, that's just a part of developing young players. He's a talented player and loves football. I love the way he plays, with great passion and energy."

Indeed, Finley is like an energetic kid on the practice field, bounding from drill to drill. I've seen him line up as the solo tight end and as part of a double-tight package. He's been a so-called "H-back," has been positioned in the slot and even split out on the far sideline. Everything looks natural and his soft hands rarely betray him. Even the Packers defenders who can stay with him have no chance to touch the ball before he does.

It's harder to judge Finley's blocking without knowing specific assignments, but McCarthy said he "absolutely" feels comfortable using him in any blocking situation.

"When I first got in here," Finley said. "The big thing that everybody was talking about me was that I was just a pass-catching tight end. I think even as last year went on, I progressed in that area. It's a good thing I came out the way I did, because it made me work for that. Now, I grade my blocking as an A+ right now. I just told myself to bunker down and make it my priority. I know that if I go out for a catch, I know I can do that. The challenge was my blocking."

Donald Lee remains the Packers' No. 1 tight end, but from what I saw Finley is essentially 1a. I imagine that starting lineups will be a function of gameplans as much as anything else, but there is little doubt Finley will have ample opportunity to impact the offense this season.

We've already noted on several occasions the exciting NFC North possibilities presented by the arrival of Rodgers, Chicago's Jay Cutler and Detroit's Matthew Stafford at the quarterback position. Well, the young tight ends in this division are equally intriguing. Between Finley, Greg Olsen of the Bears, Brandon Pettigrew of the Lions and Visanthe Shiancoe of the Vikings, I think we'll have quite a competition for the first-team all-Black and Blue team in January.

For those of you are foaming for more Packers coverage, chill out and be patient. I'll be at the Family Night scrimmage on Saturday and will post my official Camp Confidential report Sunday morning. Early next week, I'll have some thoughts on Rodgers as well as the Packers' defensive transition.