The last vision of Jermichael Finley in a Green Bay Packers uniform was the former Texas Longhorn lying on the ground in the fourth quarter of an October 2013 game against Cleveland. Carted off the field with a spinal cord injury, the Packers faithful never again saw the blossoming playmaker catch passes from Aaron Rodgers.
Unlike some other notable draft picks in the Ted Thompson era, Green Bay was able to get six seasons from Finley before losing him to a career-ending injury. For the Packers, it was especially unfortunate as they had endured a handful of adventurous seasons with Finley before earning a consistent level of production. Battles with drops and the press defined Finley’s first few seasons in Green Bay before settling into a dangerous receiving rotation with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Donald Driver. With the exception of a few glimpses of vertical potential from Jared Cook in 2016, Green Bay has had difficulty replacing Finley’s presence in the offense as both a receiver and decoy.
But Finley was not the only game-changing talent lost to severe injury. During a stretch in which the Packers were only a few weapons away from extra Super Bowl appearances, one cannot help but think about some of the lost pieces.
While Green Bay was able to get seven years from their three-time Pro Bowl safety, Collins was taken from them far too prematurely. Prior to suffering a neck injury against Carolina in 2011, Collins had started all 16 games in the previous three seasons and had truly become a dynamic player. Intercepting 17 interceptions over those three campaigns, Collins’ production has been unmatched by any Packer since. Even his replacement Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who put together a Pro Bowl campaign in 2016 with five interceptions and had 14 picks over his five seasons with the team, was not the same steady player.
Like Finley, Green Bay is still in search mode to find an equal substitute for Collins’ talent level and fit. Truly trending toward becoming one of the top-five defensive backs in the game at the time of his injury, Collins’ physical presence alone has been missed for the past seven seasons, not to mention his turnover-creating prowess.
If the Texas A&M standout had been able to run out of the Lambeau Field tunnel for more than two regular season games in his pro career, the 2005 Packer draft could have been one of the all-time greats. But Murphy, picked after Rodgers and Collins in the second round of that year’s draft, was only able to suit up for three games before losing his career to a bruised spinal cord - the same injury as Finley.
Things could have turned out much differently for Green Bay had Murphy remained on the field. Thompson was especially proficient at finding second-round receiving gems during his Packers tenure and Murphy was the first selection of that bunch. The loss of depth due to Murphy’s injury helped push Green Bay toward drafting Jennings the following year, James Jones (third round) the next season, and Jordy Nelson a year later. More than that, the Packers might have lost a difference-maker. Murphy was able to win vertically, over the middle, and on screens in college while also returning kicks. He brought a level of internal confidence to the game that would have been a great fit for the final years of Brett Favre in Green Bay.
While the Packers have not been short on quality receivers in the past decade and a half, Murphy is the ultimate what-could-have-been offensive piece during that era.
Seeking reinforcements at running back in 2013, the Packers drafted Eddie Lacy in the second round and Franklin in the fourth. Lacy’s decline began somewhere in the middle of year three, which would have provided ample opportunity for Franklin to step into the lineup as more than a third-down fixture. Instead, Franklin’s career was finished after 11 games of his rookie season.
Franklin, looked kindly upon by Mike McCarthy as a “classy” and “positive” person, suffered a neck injury that closed the running back’s career before it even started. The UCLA product had one memorable game as a Packer, rushing for 103 yards against Cincinnati when injuries to other running backs called him into action. A player who had skills as a rusher as well as a receiver out of the backfield, Franklin could have been the kind of running back to emerge from the group of Lacy, Ty Montgomery, and James Starks over the past five years. Unfortunately, the Packers were never able to truly utilize Franklin in their offense.