We speak quite often about Pittsburgh Steelers fourth-year tight end Jesse James as though he is a veteran. And make no mistake, he is indeed a veteran, who has logged his fair share of snaps over the course of his first three seasons. But he is also 24 years old.
Originally drafted by the Steelers out of Penn State in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft as an underclassman, James has been ‘forced’ into the starting lineup—certainly not against his will—for most of the past two seasons as a result of injuries to intended starting tight ends Ladarius Green and Vance McDonald.
McDonald, dealing with yet another injury, has been ruled out for the game today, which means that James will be starting his third consecutive season opener. It is the beginning of a big year for him that will help determine his future. And unless the team is working on an extension in the hotel right now, he is in a contract year.
James is slated to be an unrestricted free agent in 2019. He has the opportunity to prove in the final year of his rookie contract, starting today, that he has made strides, enough that he can be viewed by other teams—or perhaps even the Steelers—as a legitimate number one tight end.
While he will never be the dynamic sort of receiving threat that starts at the position such as Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, or Antonio Gates are, he has improved over the course of his career in terms of having reliable hands and coming up in clutch moments. The next thing he should be eying for improvement is in gaining yardage after contact, which is what a less athletic tight end such as himself must do.
He has never been a consistently high-performing blocker either, yet in spite of that has made some pretty high-profile blocks over the years. The good news is that it looked as though he was showing improvement as a blocker during the preseason this past month.
The Jesse James that we saw last season was certainly not a finished product. He is probably not even a finished product now. Young as he was when he first came into the league, the team viewing his rookie year as his senior collegiate season, there is still the opportunity for him to grow.
And today is his first and best chance to give himself a good look as a full-time number one tight end with McDonald out. I want to see him picking up yards after contact and making key blocks today. I’m cautiously optimistic about the latter, though not very hopeful for the former, but we will find out together.