It wasn’t planned that way, but 2015 fifth-round draft pick Jesse James has spent the majority of his career functioning as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top tight end, leading the position in snaps, targets, receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns in both 2016 and 2017. This is in spite of the fact that the team acquired veteran tight ends in each year to be starters.
But the Penn State product hasn’t actually solidified himself as a starter. Rather, he’s been a prolific spot starter due to injury, first because of Ladarius Green and then because of Vance McDonald. The latter remains with the team and figures to take over as the top tight end in 2018.
So what does the 2018 season mean for James? How much is riding on it? Does the Steelers’ salary cap situation and the fact that his base salary is nearly $2 million this year thanks to the Proven Performance Escalator possibly even put his roster spot in jeopardy?
The team traded for McDonald last year because they were unhappy with what they had available to them at the position from the top on down, and James at the time was the one on the top. The other primary tight ends were Xavier Grimble and David Johnson, the latter being the one to lose his roster spot. Jake McGee spent the year on the practice squad and is still with the team.
It would be a big gamble to go into the season with an injury-prone player and then a pair of backups who have done little, so I think it would be a surprise to say the least if James doesn’t end up making the roster. But beyond that? I’m not sure there is much in the way of guarantees.
The Outlaw’s career has been workmanlike but inconsistent in terms of results. He makes the occasional play, but the numbers don’t lie, and his 8.7 yards per reception in each of the past two seasons is a hard pill to swallow. He has recorded 90 receptions for 766 yards and seven touchdowns during his career.
The Steelers have chipped away at his blocking responsibilities. Especially when McDonald was healthy and up on the offense late in the season, James’ playing time really took a hit. It’s certainly reasonable to conceive that he could continue to lose footing.
I’m not one to want to run anybody out of town, but I do think he is in a bit of a delicate position regarding his future. Entering the final year of his contract, I don’t think he will be in line for an extension, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the team address the tight end position early in the draft next year.
If he a long-term quality number two tight end? I think that is what he needs to show this season, or he could find himself bumped someday the way Johnson was last year.