This time last year the Pittsburgh Steelers had consistency, experience and versatility at the tight end position. This year, it’s a position group that has a whole lot of youth and not much experience to show for it, especially with the recent release of Matt Spaeth. This leaves David Johnson as the veteran of the group, heading into his 8th season. And those likely pushing for playing time include Jesse James, Ladarius Green and Xavier Grimble.
While Green has received a lot of the attention upon his signing during free agency, James is looking to take a big step this year and become a major part of the offense. He sat down with Missi Matthews of Steelers.com to discuss last season, the loss of Miller and Spaeth, and his expectations for this upcoming year. And he says he’s starting training camp off a little lighter than when he joined the team.
“Since the start of last season I’ve lost about 12 pounds,” James said. “It comes to down to diet and just working the right way. Throughout the season last year, the staff was great with me and helped me reach my goals throughout the year.”
The tight end room got a little lighter as well upon the retirement of Heath Miller and the release of Spaeth. Both served as leaders and mentors to James throughout his rookie and sophomore season. But now he’s hoping to take on more of a leadership role amongst the tight ends.
“Not having them is huge, you know, they help everyone. Now I’m gonna try to take over that…”
James is listed on the Steelers website at 6’7” 261 pounds, though there’s some wiggle room there. Still, this puts him as the biggest tight end on the roster. That may appear bad from the start, but he remains quite fast and agile for someone of that size. He took advice from the coaching staff, shed some pounds, and now is looking to make a big step in becoming a focal point of this offense. It’s an opportunity that he says comes with some pressure amidst the absence of Miller.
“Last year coming in I didn’t have much pressure; you know? Heath Miller had been here ten years and has does a great job. This year, you know, the room is, you know, kind of empty when it comes to guys who have taken snaps. I’d only taken, you know, maybe a little bit over 100 snaps last year on offense, so for me coming in I’ve got to step it up and the pressure’s on to succeed.”
James played in 8 games last year, hauling in 8 passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. So far during training camp he has taken a large number of reps as Green has been on the PUP list. Once Green is able to put on the pads and get some work in, I’d expect to see James’ reps take a decent hit, but he will still receive his fair share. And he feels he has done a good job of becoming acclimated with the offense.
“Right now I’m probably the most comfortable guy with the playbook, so right now I gotta help guys out…I have a lot more confidence coming into this season and, you know, feel very comfortable in the room.”
And when asked about Green, James said it’s been a good experience working with the former Charger and he’s already improving because of it.
“Ladarius has been great to work with. You know, he’s always asking questions…he’s trying to get very into the small details of things. Helping me teach him helps me learn at the same time…he’s been a great help.”
Now, his main focus is continuing to grow his relationship with Big Ben and he feels confident that he can become a reliable piece within Todd Haley’s system.
“Right now, just give Ben confidence in me; let him know that I can be an every-down guy for him, you know, so he always knows where I’m at and know what to expect from me and let the whole offense know what they can expect from me every down.”
It’s hard to envision James becoming the every down tight end throughout the season, given the Steelers will be spending an average of $5 million per year on recently acquired Green. But it’s not far-fetched to assume we will see a good amount of him. Given the size of both Green and James alone, how could you not want to have them both out there at the same time, especially in the red zone? James definitely appears confident, has taken the advice of coaches, and is poised to see a year of opportunity. This tight end grouping will have a lot of eyes on them throughout the rest of camp and James will definitely be in focus.