Athletic tight ends have become a hot commodity these days in the NFL. That’s why the Patriots have to be happy about locking up pro bowl tight end Rob Gronkonski for six more years at such a “reasonable” price. The Packers hit gold with the financially sound yet short-term contract they handed over to Jermichael Finley in February. However, there is a good chance that Finley will be unaffordable when his two-year contract expires.
Finley’s history of injuries and “me-oriented” playing style make the short-term nature of the contract a positive. Further, players like Finley tend to approach their peak performance around age 27, the same age Finley will be at contract expiration. So, provided with the “rental” nature of Finley’s contract, how do you manage the development of the tight end position behind Finley?
It would be advantageous for the Packers to have young talent waiting in the wings ahead of a somewhat likely departure by Finley in 2014. Fortunately, Green Bay has exactly that with Andrew Quarless and D.J. Williams. Both have big frames and athleticism, similar to Finley, yet Williams hasn’t even begun to get off the ground development-wise.
The X-factor is former Tar Heel Ryan Taylor, who flashed potential last season and could steal second-string reps should Quarless take longer than expected to heel from injury. Tom Crabtree will surely not be seen as an eventual starter with his limited playmaking ability as a receiver.
There are lots of moving parts. Whoever emerges as Finley’s potential heir will need to be patient. Two years is a long way away and there are only so many balls to go around. Also, the tight end of the future is equally likely still in college. One scenario I could see playing out is competition between a current tight end and higher profile draftee after Finley gets a lucractive deal in free agency.
There is no arguing one point: Ted Thompson knows best when a player’s production has maxed out. He extends the contracts of only those who have many productive years ahead of them. Thompson correctly cashed out on end-of-the-road vets Ahman Green, Aaron Kampman, Al Harris, Mark Tauscher, Nick Barnett and oh, Brett Favre.
Finley’s situation is unique in that he’ll still be quite young at contract expiration. The money factor is what will determine Finley’s future in Green Bay. If he doesn’t garner interest in the open market, by all means bring No.88 back. But to hedge the risk of having to resort to a Donald Lee for several years, Thompson will stay loaded at tight end. For now, the Packers will milk Finley’s elite talent.