After the retirement of Pittsburgh Steelers’ legend Heath Miller, the organization’s tight end depth chart lost one of its most tenured athletes at the position.
Many expected second year tight end, Jesse James, to take the reigns as the team’s number one tight end after Miller’s announcement to end his career. It wouldn’t have been a complete surprise, seeing as how high the Steelers’ expectations are of James so early in his career.
At the start of free agency, the Steelers made a move to fortify the tight end spot by signing Ladarius Green to a four-year, $20 million contract. Steelers’ Nation was a house divided on the signing. Some felt it was a unnecessary move with James showing promise in his rookie season, while others knew of Green’s exploits in San Diego as a protégé to Antonio Gates.
When the Steelers released long time tight end, Matt Spaeth, due to his inability to pass a physical, James moved further up the depth chart, and cemented his role heading into training camp as the de facto number two tight end. Although considered by many to play second fiddle to Green when the 2016 season starts in September, James enters training camp first on the depth chart.
Green suffered an ankle injury last season against the Baltimore Ravens in week eight, which lead to him having surgery early in the offseason. The surgery caused Green to miss Organized Team Activities in late May, sparking the debate among some that the Steelers knowingly signed an injured player to a long-term deal.
With Green being placed on the Active/PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list, this gives James valuable snaps with the Steelers’ first team offense. Green’s addition to the PUP list is most likely precautionary, as the team wants to do everything they can to make sure he is 100% by the time the regular season is finally here.
James taking first team reps is a double-edged sword of sorts for the Steelers’ offense. While Green has starting experience in the NFL, building a rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger immediately is paramount. Opposite of that, the snaps James takes in his absence prepares him in case Green has a setback with his injury that keeps him out of the starting lineup.
Whether or not James begins the season as the Steelers’ starting tight end, he has been preparing as if the job has been his all along. James cut about twenty pounds from his playing weight last season, which would put him close to the 250 pound mark. The trimmed weight could lessen the fatigue he will face now that he will see more time on the field as a primary tight end.
Most will assume that the weight lost will have a negative impact on James’ ability to block, which is a large requirement for a tight end in the Steelers’ offense. A skilled blocking tight end can do so effectively if he maintains his strength and refines his technique without weighing close to 300 pounds.
The Steelers also have Xavier Grimble, Mandel Dixon, David Johnson, and Paul Lang to round out their tight end roster as training camp enters its second week at Latrobe, Pennsylvania. While the four of them will see more snaps than they normally would, developing James into a tight end that can get down the field with the ball in his hands as well as he can block pass rushers is important.
While the tendon in Green’s ankle continues to heal, with no timetable on his return available at this time, James will take advantage of every opportunity presented to him. Being the eighth tight end selected in the 2015 draft, he has all the motivation in the world to prove that the other 31 teams in the league made a mistake by passing on him.
It will take the combined effort of James, Green, and any other tight ends the Steelers keep on their final 53 man roster to attempt fill the void left by Miller after over a decade of service. If they develop their tight ends properly, the sting of losing Miller will not be something the offense feels for seasons to come.
No matter where the Steelers utilize him in the upcoming season, James should continue the success that he found in the unit’s red zone offense. He played a key role in the Steelers’ week nine victory over the Oakland Raiders last season when he set up a block for a Martavis Bryant touchdown, and caught one of his own to lengthen the Steelers’ lead.
Another area he should play a factor in will be the Steelers’ two-point conversion attempts. His 6’7″ frame will make him a popular target for Roethlisberger should the team continue the trend they started last season. James was the target for one two-point conversion attempt in week twelve against the Seattle Seahawks, which gave Pittsburgh the lead late in the first half.
Jesse James is poised for a great year in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense, and is in a position to soak up as much knowledge and experience as he can before the start of the season. Should an unfortunate setback occur with Ladarius Green, he will be ready to lead a new era of Steelers’ tight ends in week one against the Washington Redskins.