With the NFL offseason already underway and the NFL combine coming up shortly, the process for rebuilding the Green Bay Packers back into a Super Bowl Champion has already begun.
The Packers, like any team in the NFL, have plenty of needs across the board that will have to be addressed in either the 2014 NFL Draft or through free agency which begins next month.
Therefore, this series is going to examine the Packers roster by position to evaluate team needs and determine what prospects are available in both the draft and free agency to fill them.
The Packers are at a crossroads when it comes to tight end and 2014 may be the year they finally make a decision and commit to a long-term future at the position.
For the past two years, the Packers have been playing chicken with Jermichael Finley, delaying the inevitable decision of whether or not to give him a long-term contract.
Following the 2011 season, the Packers gave him a two-year deal worth around $16 million. They did not want to lose their tight end but after he was not quite living up to expectations and they were not ready to invest heavily in him either.
Then last offseason, there was a real possibility of Green Bay releasing Finley, particularly if Greg Jennings had decided to re-sign with the team. However, Jennings went to the Vikings and Finley wound up back in Green Bay.
Yet, the cat and mouse game is over. Finley is set to become an unrestricted free agent. The Packers must decide now what they want to do with him and the fact that he is coming off a serious neck injury has only complicated things even more.
The unfortunate thing for both the Packers and Finley is the dynamic tight end was having his best season as a pro and through six games, he caught 25 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns. Not only that, you could see the attention he garnered from opposing defenses and how it was opening up things up for Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb.
Then of course, Finley injured his neck against the Browns in week 7 and never returned. He had fusion surgery on his neck but his agent reports that there is a 99.9 percent chance he will be cleared to play football.
In that case, the Packers decision got a lot tougher.
I am sure they want Finley back but it will have to be at their price. If there is one thing the Packers will not do (in most cases) is pay more than market value for someone, (except A.J. Hawk.)
The difficult thing to do in this situation is to determine the market for Finley. Obviously, he will want to be paid as a top tight end but NFL teams will be wary about giving guaranteed money to a player coming back from a serious injury.
My suggestion to the Packers is this — slap Finley with the transition tag.
The transition tag would cost the Packers the same as the francise tag because Finley would get 120 percent of his current salary, if any tag is used but transition tag is different in that it gives the Packers right of first refusal without compensation.
If another team signs Finley, the Packers would have seven days to match the offer, if they choose not to, then Finley would sign with the other team and no compensation would change hands.
The advantage of this for the Packers is they could allow Finley to test the market and determine his true value. Then, if Ted Thompson determines it is too much to pay and he can let Finley walk and wait for his compensatory pick in 2015.
It is a win-win situation all around.
However, should Finley leave, the Packers have a second free agent tight end in Andrew Quarless, who is also coming off his finest season as a Packers.
While filling in for Finley, Quarless, who missed the entire 2012 season, started 10 games for the Packers and posted 32 receptions for 312 yards and two touchdowns. He was also the team’s most complete tight end and is known as a solid blocker.
Quarless showed enough to merit a look as a starting tight end and paired with Bostick, the Packers could have an effective one-two combo even without Finley.
Quarless should not be too difficult to re-sign, he is still young and in the prime of his career but his free agency options should be limited. If the Packers want him back, he will more than likely be back.
Yet, if both Quarless and Finley leave let’s examine the options available in both the draft and free agency.
Free Agency: Outside of Finley, Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta, Quarless and Brandon Myers, there isn’t much out there in terms of tight ends. Jimmy Graham is also technically a free agent but the Saints are going to tag him, he is not leaving New Orleans — not this year anyway.
Therefore, in terms of free agents, I do not see the Packers showing much interest outside of Finley and Quarless.
Draft: If the Packers are unable to keep Finley, they will turn to the draft to find his replacement. Quarless may be re-signed as a bridge player but he is not a long-term starter — not a preferred one anyway.
Thankfully for the Packers, this year’s tight end crop is very strong and there are some solid options for Green Bay on either day one or day two of the 2014 NFL Draft.
If Finley does leave and the Packers want to replace his playmaking in the passing game, then their best options will be either Eric Ebron of North Carolina of Jace Amaro of Texas Tech in the first round.
Both players are move tight ends that do more work as receivers than blockers and mirror Finley’s size, athleticism and pass-catching skills.
However, each player is a projected first-round pick and with the matchup problems each can pose, they may come off the board before the Packers select with the 21st pick.
If those players are off the board, rest easy because other solid options will be available for Green Bay on day two, namely Troy Niklas of Notre Dame and C.J. Fiedorowicz.
Both players are in the 6’6 range and are very solid blockers, who also posses underrated receiving skills.
Niklas, is an underclassmen, who came out early and has more potential of the two but is considered to be the best run blocking tight end in the draft. Fiedorowicz on the other hand, is viewed as a more complete all-around tight end, who can come in and start from day one.
It is good to know the Packers have options available in the draft and the Packers Guru prediction is that the team either invests in Finley long-term as their starter or they draft a tight in the first three rounds to replace him.
Either way there should finally be some long-term direction at the position for the first time in years.