There are not a lot of meaningful conclusions that you can reach about a player after the end of his first season, but that certainly doesn’t stop people from talking about it. You can find just about any variety of analysis that you would care to read if you just look for it, complete with bold letter grades.
I’m not going to do that. But I am going to talk about the Pittsburgh Steelers’s 2015 NFL Draft class, both collectively, in this article, as was as individually, in succeeding articles.
While the tides have slowly turned in Pittsburgh regarding rookie players being held back in terms of playing time in recent years, the 2015 class outside of their first-round pick did not get a lot of burn during the year, but that shouldn’t be terribly surprising in hindsight.
The Steelers entered the draft process this year with eight draft picks, including the seven natural draft picks in each round, in addition to a compensatory draft pick in the sixth round, in addition to some notable undrafted free agent acquisitions.
Player: Jesse James
Draft Status: 5th round (160th overall)
The drafting of tight end Jesse James has certainly taken on a bit of a different tone in the past week after the Steelers announced the retirement of Heath Miller, whom everybody on the outside seemed to believe was likely to finish out the last year on his contract, even if internally the brain trust knew it was a possibility that 2015 would be his last year.
That year that James now had with Miller is that much more important as he works to help fill the void that he will leave on the field in his absence. And I don’t think that the Steelers are really putting a cap on his potential, knowing as they did that he would need time to grow.
They drafted him as a true junior whom they believed played in a system that did not best accentuate his skill set. They recently characterized his rookie year as his senior season, in fact, saying that he played his senior season with the Steelers. And indeed he will not turn 22 until June.
And while he came out as a true junior, he spent half of his rookie season essentially redshirting, inactive for the first eight games of the season. When Matt Spaeth missed another game, however, after midseason, the coaching staff felt he was ready to see the field.
He caught a touchdown in that game, as well as another pass, and generally showed that he had come a long way since his dismal preseason debut. After seeing zero snaps in the first eight games, he played 181 snaps over the span of the final eight games, or around 23 snaps a game, broken down by average.
But when Miller missed a game in Week 13, it was James who replaced him, playing nearly every snap in that game, and his blocking was featured on a couple of the Steelers’ big plays.
During the postseason, James even got some work alongside Spaeth as the number two tight end in 12 and 22 sets. The Steelers are obviously comfortable with the growth that they have seen from him, and he will be a key piece in 2016. But that won’t make him the next Heath Miller—not that he was ever meant to be.