It’s said a draft class can’t be fully graded until at least three years after the picks are made. That’s why after submitting grades for every Pittsburgh Steelers pick made in 2021, I began going back through and grading previous Steeler draft classes beginning with 2018. Today continues the fourth class in that exercise, with the Steelers’ fifth-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft: Jesse James, a tight end out of Penn State.
This exercise follows the six viewpoints (listed below) for examining and re-grading a pick. Each of the first five viewpoints gets examined and assigned a letter grade, before taking that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into the draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Steelers’ Career: What did the player contribute to the team that drafted him?
NFL Career: Did the player make the pick look better in hindsight after leaving Pittsburgh?
Pick Value: Did the player outperform his draft slot? Did he fail to live up to the pick used on him?
Positional Value: Was the player the best player remaining at his specific position in the draft?
Other Options: Did any players go during the next round that were better selections?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.
Each factor in a retrospective doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made; consider the grades weighted. For example, to return a high grade in pick value, a first-round pick should have a long and impactful career, while a later-round pick needs only a couple seasons as a back-up or modest contributor to be worth the selection used on him.
Some factors are universal, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to, and steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 5, Pick 24: Jesse James, TE, Penn State
STEELERS CAREER: B
With Heath Miller playing in his final season that coming fall, Jesse James was an incredibly popular mid-round mock draft selection for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as a large tight end who could develop from a lower pick into a potential Pro Bowler and long-term successor to Miller. On the middle of Day 3, the Steelers confirmed there was truth to all that speculation by drafting James to be the team’s new backup, and potentially inherit the starting role.
He didn’t get much work behind Miller, catching only eight passes and playing just as many games as a rookie in 2015. Pittsburgh wasn’t ready to pull the trigger on him as a starter, either, signing Ladarius Green to replace Miller that offseason. Green was a spectacular bust as a Steeler, and whether or not Pittsburgh was ready for it, James became the team’s starter quickly in 2016, where Green played only six games and made two starts.
As the starter for 13 games, James caught 39 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns. Not great numbers, but they were enough to earn him a full-season audition for the starting job. Even with the acquisition of Vance McDonald, James started 14 games in 2017, catching 43 passes for 372 yards and another three touchdowns. Those numbers, however, did not do enough to let him keep his spot. McDonald took over as the starter in 2018, James’ final season in Pittsburgh.
Even still, James set a new career high in yardage as a backup that season, going for 423 yards and a 14.1 average over 30 receptions. That late breakout garnered James enough interest as a free agent that he was able to earn a lucrative contract elsewhere in the offseason. Overall, James was not the best of starters with the Steelers, but for multiple seasons filled a starting spot on the offense and did well enough to help the team.
NFL CAREER: D+
The team that saw the same future starter with major upside that many saw coming out of Penn State was the Detroit Lions, who rewarded James’ breakout with a four-year contract worth almost $6 million per season to, at the time, be their new starter. That changed significantly when Detroit spent its top 10 pick in that year’s draft on T.J. Hockenson. James still served as the primary starter, doing so in 11 of the 16 games, but was not the top priority at the position. His 16 receptions and 142 yards were less than half that of Hockensen in the team’s offense.
His second and final season in Detroit was more of the same. While Hockenson made the Pro Bowl and showed why he was a top 10 pick, James caught 14 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Detroit released him after the season, and he remains a free agent.
James is likely to sign as a backup or depth option somewhere before the season begins. Pittsburgh was the likeliest option prior to the team drafting Pat Freiermuth in the second round this April, but James remains in play as an upgrade over Zach Gentry for the third TE spot. The Buffalo Bills were also linked to James, and he would immediately step in as the backup there.
PICK VALUE: B+
A lot of Pittsburgh’s picks this draft have been very clear-cut answers to this section and not in a good way (Senquez Golson, Sammie Coates, Doran Grant). James rights the course for the team by safely living up to his draft pick. His NFL career consisted of two underwhelming but serviceable years as a starter, and another three as a more than capable backup. For a late fifth-rounder, that’s a quality return, and will only improve if he continues his NFL career as a backup.
POSITIONAL VALUE: A
James leads all tight ends taken at his spot or later in career receptions, yards, and touchdowns.
And note: Though he is one of the best tight ends in football, Darren Waller does not count for this section. He was drafted and initially played wide receiver before converting to the position. Many remain in the NFL today and a couple even earned chances to start. But none did with those opportunities what James did.
Nick Boyle (171st, Baltimore) is James’ biggest rival in a re-draft at this spot, starting the last four years in Baltimore’s tight end-heavy offense. His numbers (23-31 receptions, 203-321 yards) all three of his complete seasons in that span are comparable to James’, if a step below them. He also has two career touchdowns and is the clear second option to Mark Andrews. But Boyle’s career and James’ I consider very similar.
James O’Shaughnessy (173rd, Kansas City) has started in Jacksonville, but has only one complete season in the role and underwhelming numbers. Nick O’Leary (194th, Buffalo) and Geoff Swaim (246th, Dallas) have carved out backup careers. A good class for late backup options, but James and Boyle stand out above the rest and are on par with each other.
OTHER OPTIONS: A+
The next 32 picks after James are a graveyard of failed late-round selections. Over that stretch, only nine players were selected who made it more than four seasons in the league, and only 15 made it beyond three seasons.
Boyle is one of the biggest success stories of that diminutive group. Objectively, he is about the only success story that didn’t play on special teams. Bradley Pinion (165th, San Francisco) is on his seventh season handling punts and kickoffs in the NFL, and just won a Super Bowl ring with Tampa Bay. Joe Cardona (166th, New England) went one spot later, and has held the team’s long snapper job from that moment on. It’s not a special teams position, but Michael Burton (168th, Detroit) is keeping the fullback position going in the NFL, just signing with Kansas City.
The rest is nothing but NFL washouts. Of all those players, Pittsburgh drafted one of the two best (four, if you count special teams). Hard to dislike that pick by comparison.
OVERALL GRADE: A-
Jesse James is one of those rare picks that, the whole way through the pre-draft process, you just knew was going to become a Steeler at the end of it (other examples include Marcus Allen and Benny Snell). He offered the Steelers a lot of upside long-term as a tight end and filled an immediate need that only became more pressing shortly into the following season.
He never became a Pro Bowler or long-term NFL starter, but James played his position well in that role over two seasons for a late fifth-round pick. Picking this late, even getting a long-term backup at the position that can make spot starts and not be a liability in two-TE sets is a good selection. James is more than that, and will be one of the better backup TEs in the league when he signs in the coming couple months. A reunion with Pittsburgh is definitely in the Steelers’ best interests, but James should earn a better job as a team’s top backup sometime soon.