Free agency is by definition fraught with players with all kinds of questions. Is a player worth the money they are about to get from teams vying the same talent? Will the free agent be a fit to a new team culture? Does the player have the right work ethic now that they got their big money deal? Can the new acquisition be durable enough to play out their contract?
Generally, the best players never reach free agency. "The best players are [already] signed,” ESPN's Bill Polian told reporters on a conference call this week. “These [free agents] are essentially ‘B’ players whose agents are looking for ‘A’ money. That, in itself, is not the best of buys. You recognize that as a general manager.”
There's always reason for pause when a player is allowed to walk out the door but in the case of Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, the normal reasons might not apply. Finley has been considered a top ten tight end for a few years and is one of the most intriguing prospects in this free agent class. While he hasn't played football since October he has been the subject of some speculation around a number of interested NFL teams, including the Jets.
Durability concerns will come up as he starts to talk with teams, but there's also the question of whether or teams can in good conscience sign him after suffering a serious spinal injury less five months ago which left him unable to leave the field under his own power in a game against a game against the Browns back in October 2013.
Finley told, in his own words, the harrowing tale of his injury for SI's MMQB just a few weeks after his seasn ended.
After I got hit, in the fourth quarter of our win against the Browns last week, my eyes were wide open. I was very conscious, but I could not move. I looked my teammate Andrew Quarless directly in the eye and whispered, “Help me, Q. I can’t move; I can’t breathe.” The scariest moment was seeing the fear in Q’s eyes. I knew something was wrong, but his reaction verified it. That really shook me up.Amazing then that in such a short time period, Finley is almost fully recovered. While there were some real concerns about his injury, he has been hard at work and his agent has told reporters in recent weeks that the pending free agent is very close to getting his medical clearance. In fact, it might come as soon as today. According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, Finley's neurosurgeon will examine his scans Saturday to whether the tight end will be fully cleared for team activities.
I actually had feeling in my legs, but I couldn’t feel much else. On the field, the doctors were going through regular procedures, testing me on sense and touch, and asking me a multitude of questions. But because I was a little panicked, I couldn’t breathe, which made it very difficult to answer. I remember one of the doctors telling me to “close my legs,” and I simply could not. They ended up unscrewing my facemask before lifting me up on the stretcher. When I was exiting the field at Lambeau, I tried to raise my hand to give the fans a thumbs-up, but I got about halfway and couldn’t raise my arm any further. I kept asking the neurosurgeon, “Will I walk again?” His answer was a definitive, “Yes, you are moving your legs right now.” Then I asked, “Will I use my arms again? Will I play football again?” To those questions, I simply got, “I cannot answer that yet.”
Clearly there was a problem, and I was terrified.
How did he come so far so fast? SI writer (and former Jets beat reporter) Jenny Vrentas did a long-form piece on Finley two weeks ago and was impressed by his workout regimen and what she's heard from doctors.
It doesn’t really sound believable until you watch him work. He’s dead-lifting 429 pounds, in reps of threes ... [h]e has quick answers to all the questions a doctor might ask: Balance? Restored six weeks ago. Pain? None for the past month, in any part of his range of motion. He loves football, and he expects to embark on a seventh professional season at no greater risk than any other player.Finley might not be the right player for the Jets for any number of reasons, but ruling him out because of his 2013 injury shouldn't be the reason. The Jets have to know that they've got to take some calculated chances to make their team better on offense as judiciously though effectively as possible. Adding a talented player like Finley could have a major impact on the offense and due to the circumstances the contract might not be too onerous.
The neurosurgeon who performed Finley’s surgery, Joseph Maroon, has told him there’s a 99.9 percent chance the fusion will fully heal. After his latest X-rays, taken late last week, Finley says he was told that point could be reached within four weeks—and then Maroon would be prepared to clear him for football activity.
But the 26-year-old Finley may face other hurdles in signing his next NFL contract. Clearance from Maroon, the team neurosurgeon for the Steelers, would be a strong vote of confidence. But it’s possible some teams, despite Finley’s powerful frame and basketball-player athleticism, may not want to take on the risk of putting him on the field. The fusion was considered a proactive measure to fortify his neck and guard against another similar episode, but for some clubs the fact that it has healed may not be the sole determining factor for clearance.
Rex Ryan is a coach known for his protection and care for veteran players ... often letting them rest or putting them on "pitch counts" with the intent that they will be ready on Sundays. In addition, the Jets have an excellent medical staff on-hand and available to Finley. There's always going to be a risk with any free agent and if it doesn't work out with Finley everyone will understand, but the opportunity available seems worth exploring for the Jets.