When former Penn State tight end Jesse James was first drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2015 NFL Draft, he probably already had a good sense of what that might mean: he was going to block, a lot, and he was going to be taught how to block on the NFL level.
The 6’7”, 260-pounder was not always used the way that many felt best accentuated his skills in college, both as a blocker and as a pass catcher, but he and the Steelers are both hoping to hit upon the right combination that best fits what he is able to contribute to the team.
After the Steelers went out and signed Ladarius Green, of course, that likely signaled pretty clearly that he would not be asked to serve as the team’s primary receiving option from the tight end position—that is where Green’s strengths lie, after all—which leaves the blocking left for him to focus on.
Not that he will not contribute to the passing offense, but James understands where he needs to excel in order to retain his role on this team, and that is to continue to grow as a blocker, which is an area in which he made significant strides not just from college, but over the course of the regular season, during the first half of which he was a game day inactive.
Having had the opportunity to work under the veteran Heath Miller for a year, the second-year tight end has not been unappreciative of that fact, calling the recently retired Pittsburgh staple “a pro’s pro” and “just an all-around great guy”. Miller has been the Steelers’ workhorse over the past decade and knows as much as anybody the role of blocking in this offense, knowledge that he had been able to pass along.
Combined with tight end coach James Daniel, much of James’ tutelage from his peers and coaches during his rookie year boiled down simply to what it takes to be a blocking tight end in the Steelers’ offense. “I learned a lot about blocking”, he said, in a statement so obvious it should be taken as a given without being said.
He credited both Daniel and Miller for helping to teach him the craft, with Matt Spaeth, of course, to whom he is most similar, for his growth, saying that “they all helped me work on it”. And much of that learning came in the form of leading by example.
“Just watching those guys every day in practice and taking it onto the field on Sundays”, he said, “I felt adjusted well and grew a lot in that area”.
Miller may have moved on to his life’s work, but Coach Daniel is still there, through whom a long line of Pittsburgh tight ends have learned their craft. As is the veteran Spaeth, who is among the longest-tenured players left on the team. The working dynamic between him and James should be interesting to watch this season, especially as the 21-year-old continues to hone his skills.