Player: Jesse James
Position: Tight End
Free Agent Status: Unrestricted
2018 Salary Cap Hit: $1,959,228
2018 Season Breakdown:
2018 was Jesse James’ best season as a complete player, the two biggest developments being his emergent consistency as a blocker, complete with a greater physical element, as well as his improved ‘feel’ for the play as it breaks down, putting himself in positions for Ben Roethlisberger to hit him for big plays in empty space.
There’s no other way to explain how you could go from averaging 8.7 yards per catch for your career to suddenly 14.1. In all, he caught 30 passes in 2018 for 423 yards and two touchdowns, and that was while playing second fiddle as a pass-catch to a player who caught 50 passes for over 600 yards with four touchdowns.
But beyond that, he continued to display the ability to make tough catches, including third-down catches, and even seemed a bit shiftier than usual after the catch, less frequently going down on first contact.
As a blocker, his greatest improvement as mentioned was in terms of the consistency of his reps. He has had the ability to block well since his rookie season, but they are becoming a more common occurrence, both in the run game and in pass protection. He’s not a great blocker, nor a great catcher, nor a great athlete, but he can do everything, which is ideal for his role as the number two tight end. He’s the Matt Spaeth of his era, who isn’t quite the physical player but can offer more in the passing game.
Free Agency Outlook:
The 2019 free agency class at the tight end position is not going to be a strong one, which could make James more in demand. The biggest name on the board is arguably Tyler Eifert, who has missed more games than he has played in over the course of his career.
The other bigger names currently slated to hit the open market, assuming they even get that far, are Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks, Tyler Kroft, and the like, as well as older names who will either retire or re-sign, such as Antonio Gates and Benjamin Watson.
With so little of significance scheduled to become available for the draft, it’s reasonable to believe that James could have a more engaged market than might be anticipated for a player with his production. A team could certainly look at him as a quality number two with the potential to serve as a one if necessary and offer him a few million per season. A guy like Rhett Ellison can make $4.5 million per season, after all.
Still, James has acknowledged that his hometown bias will be hard to ignore as he explores his options this spring. He would obviously love to be able to say that he spent his whole career in Pittsburgh, but it will depend upon how much they’re willing to offer, and by how much that differs from what he hears in free agency.
My personal inclination is that he will be persuaded to stay. I think he has a lot of personal investment in being a Steeler, and would accept less money to continue to be part of that. Importantly, the Steelers still continued to use him a lot last year even as Vance McDonald became the top target.