If not for the fact that Heath Miller retired and Matt Spaeth was released with a failed physical, then there is a great deal riding on the shoulders of second-year Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James because of the continuingly uncertain tenure of their top free agent signing, Ladarius Green, who remains on the Physically Unable to Perform List.
Regardless of the fifth-year tight end’s level of participation at the start of the season, or even later on in the year, the fact remains that he is not and has not traditionally been used as the conventional in-line blocking tight end, and that, at least, appears to be one role that James will have to fill.
Of course, he will not be limited to any prescribed role provided that he demonstrates an ability to contribute in other ways, such as carving out a role as a pass catcher. But with Green healthy, it would seem obvious that his primary role will be to block, and it is mainly with that in mind that I have my eye on him this preseason.
It would seem to me that the first snap of the game has been pretty indicative of where James is in his development. The 6’7” tight end certainly has the height, but he is also lanky, and actually dropped weight from his rookie season, which makes me wonder about his functional strength.
This first play was one of a number of examples in which the second-year tight end was made to give up more ground than he would have wished, even if he ultimately secured the block upon regathering himself to allow the throw to get off.
A few plays later on the same opening drive, he has one of his two major gaffes as a blocker, this time attempting to play the role of a move tight end, sweeping right to left. This is the role that Miller served on such plays, but on this occasion, James overran the mark and it led to a negative play.
On a later run closer to midway through the quarter, James did show a better effort from a functional strength standpoint, able to turn out the defensive end, partially with his own momentum, admittedly, to provide a fleeting running lane.
Later on the drive, on a bubble screen to Eli Rogers, he got outside to help block on the 14-yard gain. Any sort of mobility that he displays is a positive. He kept the drive alive subsequently with a four-yard reception on third and three running a flat route for the first down.
Of course, he finished the half with his biggest gaffe of the night, whiffing in pass protection as he got beaten cleanly around the right side. Landry Jones took a hit as he threw, which resulted in the ball being underthrown and intercepted.
I don’t think that the Steelers have on their roster a workhorse-type tight end that Heath Miller was, who could play any role at all times. As such, I sincerely hope that Green gets healthy soon to limit the responsibilities placed on James as he continues to develop all aspects of his game.