The Pittsburgh Steelers’ initial succession plan at tight end for Heath Miller did not exactly go as planned after they ended up releasing Ladarius Green just one year into a four-year contract with a failed physical designation. But they seem to be comfortable gravitating toward plan B at this point, and not without reason.
That alternative plan would be, of course, Jesse James, whom the Steelers drafted in the fifth round out of Penn State in 2015 as an underclassman, spending his rookie season with the team as a 21-year-old. He didn’t gain much playing experience until late that year, but he played nearly a full season in 2016.
And he knows that he is better for it. “It’s great”, he said about heading into his third year. “I have a year under my belt playing full time. From this time last year, I am way further ahead. I feel really good about where I am”.
The first few weeks of the season, in fact, James hardly even came off the field, although that was not necessarily to his, or the team’s, advantage at the time. He was overexposed early on, and there are more than a few times in which he was gotten the better of as a result. But that, too, was a learning opportunity.
“Last year”, he said, “was 22 years old and made a lot of mistakes that I learned from. I knew going into the offseason they wanted me to improve to help the team. I think I did a good job with that. I need to keep improving through this camp and when we get to Latrobe”.
The young tight end is certainly becoming versed in saying all the right things, and it is not altogether unfounded to believe him. After all, he did improve over the course of the 2016 season. While he was not flawless in the postseason, his receiving numbers were very respectable, and he did well as a blocker, too.
Still, he knows that the job is not done—not that one would expect him to say that he believes that he has peaked at this point in his career. Never the less, it is refreshing to hear him acknowledge the need to continue to improve over the course of this offseason as his role figures to expand even further.
We will definitely learn quite a bit about James this season and about what sort of player he may be capable of being at his peak. The observations on that front may go a long way toward getting up the future of the position, and whether or not the Steelers believe that James can be the number one guy, and not simply a bridge.