Jason Hirschhorn at Acme Packing Company described Jermichael Finley's situation as "football purgatory," which is apt. The tight end should have been a prized commodity on the free agent market on talent alone, but a scary neck injury last October forced him to have vertebrae fused, and his recovery progress since has been murky. At one point, he was expected to be fully recovered before the start of free agency, but he failed a physical when he was on the verge of signing with the Seattle Seahawks last March.
Without medical clearance, Finley has been forced to sit the last few months as a potential starting tight end without a home. He sat through the NFL Draft, when seven tight ends were take in the first three rounds. He watched the Green Bay Packers begin making preparations for a future without him, selecting Richard Rodgers out of Cal in the third round and signing the beleaguered-but-talented Colt Lyerla as an undrafted free agent.
On Thursday, there was a flash of hope:
Agent Blake Baratz tells PFT Live that Dr. Maroon has given Jermichael Finley full medical clearance.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) May 29, 2014
Finley may be ready to return to practice, finally. Of course, Dr. Maroon saying Finley is clear to play isn't the same as the Seahawks or the Packers coming to the same conclusion. Maroon is a neurosurgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but more importantly, he is Finley's personal doctor. He is also the man who may have told Finley that the tight end would be cleared by March with "99.9 percent" confidence, which proved incorrect.
So there's uncertainty, still, but oddly not a lot of impetus necessary on Finley's end. He revealed last October, in a column for Monday Morning Quarterback, that he owns a disability insurance policy that would pay him $10 million, tax-exempt, if his injuries prove severe enough to keep him from playing football again. With no official team clearance yet, Finley may be able to decide to leave the sport and take a lucrative payday, rather than risk further bodily harm over several years to potentially make less money than he could have collected on his policy.
Finley has said that he plans to play football again, but it's fair to argue whether he is making the sound financial decision. Though he has the frame and athleticism of an elite tight end, he didn't quite live up to the two-year, $14 million contract he signed with the Packers in 2012.
True, he developed into a reliable pass catcher. After posting 12.0 percent drop rate in 2011 that was the highest of any player with at least 65 targets, his catch rate jumped just above 70 percent over his next 22 games, across which his drop rate fell to 6.6 percent.
Finley's improved receiving ability didn't immediately result in better numbers, however. In 2012, he caught six more passes over the previous season, but his production fell by 100 yards -- 667 yards receiving from 767. His touchdowns fell even more precipitously -- from eight to two -- as the Packers relied more heavily on Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb through the air. Finley finished fourth on the team in receiving that year.
In 2013, Finley was on pace for a bounce-back 67 receptions for 800 yards and eight touchdowns, all career highs, before getting hurt. Though the numbers may have been enough to assuage concerns about talent, the neck injury created more worry than previously existed.
The result is muddy evaluation of Finley, one in which every positive evolution he makes is counteracted by a new defect -- drops, sudden lack of dynamic, injury, etc. Hence, Finley's peculiar place in football purgatory, and a situation where he could seemingly take-or-leave the sport just as easily as NFL teams could take-or-leave him.
Finley is in limbo, and it's not yet clear whether he can climb out.