GREEN BAY — How to explain Jermichael Finley's yips last season?
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Finley's 12 drops were most among tight ends in the league even though the fifth-year pro for the Green Bay Packers ranked only No. 11 at the position in passes targeted.
New England's Rob Gronkowski had the next-most drops with eight. He was targeted 121 times and caught 90 passes, to Finley's 91 targets and 55 receptions. New Orleans' Jimmy Graham had league highs with 146 targets and 99 catches but had only six drops.
Considering that Finley has maybe the most natural pass-catching hands on the team, those drops raise the question of whether his public proclamations about YOTTO (year of the takeover) in back-to-back years created more self-imposed pressure than he could bear.
Going into each of the last two seasons, Finley publicly promised to put up huge numbers but failed to do so. In 2010, he was off to a decent start (21 catches in four games) before a knee-cartilage injury ended his season in Week 5. Last year, he played in every game, but along with his modest number of receptions, appeared to lose some of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' trust as the season went on and the drops continued.
"I don't know what the issue was last year," said new tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot, who coached the Packers' running backs last season. "Whether it was pressure or just getting eyes back on the football; whether it was mental or physical; who knows? ... This offseason we've worked a number of drills re-sighting and getting your eyes back on the football. Nothing that's out of the ordinary except that we are having an offseason (program) this year after not having an offseason (program) last year."
To be sure, Finley is a key player in the Packers' prolific offense even if he finished only No. 3 on the team in receptions last season. He and receiver Greg Jennings drew the most attention of opposing defenses, which helped Jordy Nelson to a breakout season that included a team-high 68 receptions and the No. 3 ranking in the league in touchdown catches (15). Finley also averaged 13.9 yards per catch, which ranked No. 3 among tight ends with 40 or more receptions, and had eight touchdown catches, which was third among tight ends.
At age 25, Finley hasn't reached his prime. Even after his shaky 2011, the Packers made a priority to keep him off the open market before the start of free agency and reached a compromise deal that worked for both parties.
Finley's two-year contract that averages $7 million puts him on par with the highest-paid tight ends in the league for average pay — he ranks fifth, not far behind the leader, Dallas' Jason Witten at $7.5 million per season. But in acknowledgement of the Packers' concerns that Finley hasn't played up his talent for a full season, the Packers didn't make the enormous commitment in guaranteed money needed for a long-term deal, and Finley in return will become a free agent again when he's still young (he turns 27 in March 2014).
Still, for any concerns the Packers have about Finley's off-field maturity and proclivities for unpolitic comments to reporters and on Twitter, they like his desire to be great and consider him coachable.
"He's got unbridled enthusiasm for the game," Fontenot said. "No matter what you ask of him, whether it's blocking, pass protection, running routes, he's got enthusiasm. He's fantastic to be around. But it's obviously something — my main focus here is just giving him some drills we do in practice that get him into re-sighting (the ball)."
Though Finley achieved some financial security with his new contract, the short-term deal suggests he'll be highly motivated for a potentially huge payday in only two years. Coach Mike McCarthy probably won't build his offense around Finley to the degree the coach did heading into 2010 — the offense's rhythm improved later that Super Bowl year even after Finley's season-ending injury — but Finley's combination of size (6-5, 247) and receiving talent make him potentially as important as any receiver on the team.
"If he plays well, his contribution will be enormous," Fontenot said.
Including Finley, the Packers return as talented a pass-catching corps as any team in the NFL.
Greg Jennings has been the best playmaker the last five years and at age 28 is entering the final year of his contract. Nelson (18.6 yards per catch last year) improved measurably in each of his four previous seasons and has become the team's No. 2 receiver as a downfield target who, at 6-3 and 217, is good at going over defensive backs and high-pointing the ball.
And based on flashes he showed last year as a rookie, Randall Cobb could become a game-changer. The second-round pick caught only 25 passes last season but showed explosiveness after the catch and in the return game, and figures to be the team's top slot receiver this season.
Like last year, the Packers figure to work James Jones regularly in the rotation, and their paying 37-year-old Donald Driver a $1.2 million roster bonus this offseason means it's almost a given he'll be on the roster and suggests he'll be part of the rotation.
Less clear is how many receivers they'll keep on their roster. In recent years, general manager Ted Thompson and McCarthy have bucked convention and kept a radically high number of players at a position. Last year it was five tight ends; the year before three fullbacks.
This year they're high on two players from last season's practice squad — Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel — and have a third interesting prospect in Shaky Smithson, a return-game specialist who spent last season on injured reserve because of a shoulder injury.
For the past several years the Packers have kept only five receivers, but this year it looks like they might keep six, and based on Thompson's and McCarthy's history, a seemingly unthinkable seventh can't be ruled out.
Behind Finley at tight end, it seems highly unlikely the Packers would keep five again. Andrew Quarless is coming off a major knee injury and probably will miss at least the first six games on the physically unable to perform list. Third-year pro Tom Crabtree and second-year pro Ryan Taylor are core special-teams players.
A development to watch is whether D.J. Williams, a fifth-round pick last year, will become the kind of downfield receiving threat he was in college at Arkansas after a nondescript training camp and season as a rookie. At 6-2, Williams is on the short side for his position, but he ran an excellent 4.59-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine in 2011 and caught 54 passes as a senior in college.