Who's the better fit: Finley or Keller?

Who's the better fit: Finley or Keller?
June 10, 2014, 4:15 pm
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Depth, depth and more depth.

The Patriots have long put a premium on building a 53-man roster that will keep the team competitive if and when injuries strike -- even if its the starting quarterback (2008) or three of the team's defensive starters (2013) who go down.

A look at the team's depth chart at tight end might make one wonder then if the Patriots plan to add to that spot. Currently on the roster are Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, DJ Williams and a handful of undrafted players: Justin Jones, Asa Watson and recent addition Kyle Auffray. 

While there's proven talent there (Gronkowski) and reliability (Hoomanawanui), the others are unknown commodities. Even if the Patriots have moved away from the two-tight offense that helped re-define the position a couple of seasons ago, an injury or two could leave them in a bind. 

There are, however, two tight ends on the free-agent market who could provide the team some insurance. Both are coming back from significant injuries, but both offer a good deal of upside if healthy.

Here's a quick look at both Jermichael Finley and Dustin Keller to see who may be the better fit in New England.

At his best, the former Packers tight end would provide exactly what the Patriots seem to lack: a proven, athletic "move" tight end.

With Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball in Green Bay, Finley was a 6-foot-5, 240-pound mismatch. During his three best seasons (2009, 2011, 2012) he caught 55, 55 and 61 balls for 2,110 yards (703 yards per year) and 15 touchdowns.

Though he wouldn't be a dominant blocker in the running game, Finley's ability to play out of the slot would give the Patriots offense a versatile piece who if used in conjunction with Gronkowski could open up gobs of space in the middle of the field. The team has reportedly had him in for a visit late last month.

If his asking price is reasonable, Finley's health would be the only deterrent to signing him -- but it's a very real one. He had to have his C3 and C4 vertebrae fused together following a season-ending spinal cord bruise that left him temporarily without feeling.

Finley's doctor has cleared him to play, but how the 27-year-old handles the physical load of returning to NFL play -- and how he deals with whatever mental hurdles may be associated with a return -- still remains to be seen.

It sounds like Finley is interested in continuing his NFL career, but there's a chance he decides not to play. According to NFL.com, Finley would be paid $10 million tax-free if he never plays again thanks to a disability insurance policy. (Though he could face a fight to collect, according to ESPN.)

The prospect of that kind of pay-day -- and the piece of mind that would come with saving his body from the punishment of professional football -- may be enough to keep him out of the game for good. 

The former Jets and Dolphins tight end would provide the Patriots with a little more familiarity. The 29-year-old has played in 11 games against New England since his rookie season in 2008, and he's been a thorn in Belichick's side for a handful of them.

In two games against the Pats in 2012, Keller combined to have 12 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns.

At 6-2, 255 pounds, he'd be a more compact option at the "move" spot as compared to Finley, but he's proven to be just about Finley's equal in terms of production over the course of their careers.

Since his rookie year, Keller has played in 72 games and caught 241 balls for 2,876 yards (11.9 yards per catch) and 17 touchdowns.

Finley was also drafted in 2008 and since that time has played in 70 games making 223 catches for 2,785 yards (12.5 yards per catch) and 20 touchdowns.

As it is with Finley, the biggest concern surrounding Keller is his health. He suffered a devastating knee injury -- he tore his right ACL, MCL, PCL and dislocated his knee -- last preseason and missed the entirety of the regular season.

The Patriots seem to be at the very least interested in what Keller could offer their offense since they met with him in April. Keller also has a Patriots connection in that he played under current Patriots tight end coach Brian Daboll during his rookie season with the Jets.

Assuming both are healthy, Keller seems like the best option of the two.

The Patriots know his skill set, and he's familiar with the defenses in the AFC East after spending his six-year career in the division.

Keller has put together the same kind of numbers as Finley over the course of his career while working with less talented quarterbacks, and Keller's approach seems to be more by-the-book than that of Finley, who has made headlines in the past for being disgruntled with his role in Green Bay's high-powered offense.

If Keller's knee checks out, he would be an ideal fit.

Finley and Keller are close enough in their skill sets, however, that if the Patriots do decide to sign one for depth, it could come down to this: Who is the healthiest?