The allure and excitement of participating in an NFL camp as a rookie is obviously a dream come true for all the players involved. This seems to ring especially true for a couple players in this year’s crop of incoming Steelers. Undrafted free agent B.J. Finney is a lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers fan who jumped at the opportunity to sign with Pittsburgh even before the draft was over and he had weighed all his options with other squads.
Another is their fifth round draft choice out of Penn State, massive tight end, Jesse James, a local product who hails from the shadows of Pittsburgh, having went to nearby South Allegheny High School.
“I couldn’t be happier,” he said, according to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I think it’s a great fit. I couldn’t be more excited to get there and go to work.”
He is the third WPIAL (Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League) product the team has drafted since 2009, including another Nittany Lion, A.Q. Shipley in 2009, and Ryan Mundy, in 2008. The Penn State record holder for career touchdowns by a tight end with 11, you would never know it, according to his great-uncle, Nick Grimaldi of East McKeesport.
“Very mannerly,” Grimaldi said, according to Dave Mackall of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “He’d be the last guy you’d ever hear saying that he broke records at Penn State.”
James has an NFL-ready frame already with his imposing 6-foot-7 and 261 pound size. And although he wasn’t necessarily used exclusively as a receiver at Penn State, the Steelers coaching staff believes he can turn into just that, especially down in the red area where he can use his height and bulk to box out smaller defenders on jump balls.
For two years of his career at Penn State, James played under the tutelage of coach Bill O’Brien, in a pro-style offense that’s very tight end-friendly. Coming from the pro ranks having coached up guys like Aaron Hernandez and All-Pro Rob Gronkowski, James looked to be the next big thing for O’Brien. Coming from a Patriots’ offense with a prolific combo like those two, the experience and expertise O’Brien gave James had to have been invaluable.
It’s also important to look at the trend that the NFL seems to be going towards, and that’s teams possessing a larger, more-athletic tight end than ones such as former Steeler Mark Bruener, basically a glorified tackle and wall of granite as far as blocking was concerned. Vastly under-utilized as a receiver during his time in Happy Valley, James could flourish with a franchise quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the football.
Steelers tight ends coach, James Daniels, definitely feels his receiving capabilities haven’t fully been brought to the surface, and refused to put a ceiling on him.
“The evaluation I did on him you see him catching balls, and he made a couple of tough catches,” Daniels said. “You don’t see anything that says he’s not going to be a good receiver. He has enough talent to be good in all phases of the game.”
James killed it at the NFL Combine, posting 26 bench reps, a 10-foot-1 inch broad jump, which by the way is better than both All-Pros Jimmy Graham and Gronkowski posted, and an explosive 37.5-inch vertical. At 6-foot-7 going up 37.5 inches, that equates to an enormous catch radius. Now I’m not saying James is the next Graham or Gronk, but there are some similarities. Especially the fact that Graham is listed at 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, basically spot-on to that of James.
“He’s a freak, athletically, talent-wise, there’s not another tight end in the country better than him, for sure,” PSU strength coach Dwight Galt gushed about his tight end, according to Josh Moyer, ESPN Penn State/Big ten reporter. “He’s got speed, he’s got strength, he’s got agility, he’s got size. He’s got everything.”
As of yesterday, the ink had already dried on James’ new four-year contract with the team so now all that awaits him is hard work. He’s in a very good position as far as the future goes, as the team’s top two tight ends in Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, are both on the wrong side of 30, at 33 and 32, respectively.
According to his high school teammate, running back Keaton McClelland, he saw big things on the horizon for James even back then.
“I’d be running the ball and everyone would be focused on me,” McClelland said, according to Mackall. “But Jesse was clearing somebody out of the way with another block, and you wouldn’t really notice. That’s how he was. He didn’t care if anyone noticed him. He just played.”
Seems like your typical hard hat, lunch pail kind of Steeler to me.