Jesse James was not exactly a hot commodity when he declared for the 2015 NFL Draft. Many—who were even aware of him—felt that he should have stayed at Penn State for another season, given that he declared for the draft as a junior. Who knows how he might have improved his stock if he stayed. Perhaps not much.
But he ended up going in the fifth round, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Great team, poor position. He relishes the opportunity to play for Pittsburgh, and pushes himself for them because they were the ones who gave him the chance, and because they are his hometown team. But he is still driven by those who passed on him.
“There were seven tight ends drafted before me”, he pointed out recently to the team’s website. Three of those tight ends went within the division. The Baltimore Ravens used a second-round draft pick on Maxx Williams, while the Cincinnati Bengals took two tight ends ahead of James: Tyler Kroft in round three and then C.J. Uzomah in round five, just three picks earlier.
Also taken ahead of him were Clive Walford to the Oakland Raiders in round three, Jeff Heuerman in the same round to the Denver Broncos, Blake Bell to the San Francisco 49ers in round four, and McCoyle Pruitt to the Minnesota Vikings in round five.
“I keep a chip on my shoulder that there are teams that passed on me, teams in our division that drafted two tight ends before me”, James said, obviously referring to the Bengals with the latter comment. “I have a big chip on my shoulder for those teams and lack of confidence I had throughout the league on draft day”.
That only makes him appreciate playing for Pittsburgh even more. “The Steelers gave me a chance and I am trying to make the most of it”, he said, calling it “definitely a motivation thing”. He has spent most of the past two seasons as the team’s primary tight end on the field, albeit largely due to injuries around him.
“It feels good to do it for my hometown team in particular. They gave me a chance and I am trying make the most of it. They pushed me and guided me throughout the way”. As Alex Kozora talked about yesterday, he gives a lot of credit to Steelers tight ends coach James Daniel, who is now the longest-serving member of the coaching staff with on-field responsibilities.
While he speaks about the opportunity that the Steelers have given him and the trust that they have put into him, I would be remiss not to mention that they traded for Vance McDonald in late August last year because they were unsatisfied with the quality of play from the entire tight end group.
Still, James is a durable, loyal, and in some situations reliable player. He won’t be making the Pro Bowl any time soon, but his following is built on more than just his local connections. His underdog story and work ethic are easy to like even if his 8.7 yards per catch is not.