2018 Offseason Questions: What Will Jesse James’ Role Look Like?

The journey toward Super Bowl LII ended far too prematurely for the Pittsburgh Steelers, sending them into offseason mode before we were ready for it. But we are in it now, and are ready to move on, through the Combine, through free agency, through the draft, into OTAs, and beyond.

We have asked and answered a lot of questions over the years and will continue to do so, and at the moment, there seem to be a ton of questions that need answering. A surprise early exit in the postseason will do that to you though, especially when it happens in the way it did.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring developments all throughout the offseason process, all the way down to Latrobe. Pending free agents, possible veteran roster cuts, contract extensions, pre-draft visits, pro days, all of it will have its place when the time arises.

Question: What will Jesse James’ role look like this season as the number two to Vance McDonald?

It wasn’t planned that way, but Jesse James has spent the bulk of the past two seasons serving as the Steelers’ number one tight end. The team tried to replace Heath Miller in 2016 after he retired with Ladarius Green, but he was only on the field for something like six games.

They brought in Vance McDonald last season, but he didn’t get here until just ahead of the final preseason game, so he spent a lot of time learning on the fly, and then had a litany of injuries to contend with, but late in the year, when he was healthy, it was clear who was the top tight end based on usage.

(It was McDonald, in case you were wondering).

So that brings us to the 2018 season, wherein we find the Steelers as a team that has two tight ends they have used as the lead before. Will that increase their proclivity for two-tight end sets, perhaps with less dependence on the tackle-eligible? The departure of Chris Hubbard also makes the tackle-eligible option somewhat less desirable, though others have done it.

The starkest example of the two tight ends merging into new roles came in the postseason loss. McDonald played a season-high 68 snaps (having never topped 35 before that) while James played a season-low 17. His snaps dipped into the 30s in the final two weeks, but that was as low as it had previously gotten.

Is that really the potential future we’re looking at for James, going from seeing at least 50 to 60 snaps a game on average to little more than a dozen? Or will we see the Steelers invest more in two-tight end sets? Will they value James in certain situations over McDonald? He has more reliable hands, for example, but McDonald has been the one used over him in hurry-up situations.

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