THE LATE BLOOMER: Why the Saints Should Target Steelers’ Back-Up TE Jesse James in 2019 NFL Free Agency

Photo by Jeffery Beall

In the NFL, players who go on to become superstars can usually do so because they possess a distinctive and God-given physical talent which allows them to achieve a high level of success consistently for a sustained amount of time. However, occasionally, some players become well-known just because they know how to make the most of their opportunities whenever they have a chance.

In the case of underrated 4th-year veteran back-up tight end and now unrestricted free agent Pittsburgh Steelers Jesse James, the latter is true. Now the 25-year old former Penn State University star will have an even bigger opportunity to become well-known throughout the League — especially if a team that needs a new starting tight end (like the New Orleans Saints) — decides to target him when NFL Free Agency begins next month on March 13th.

As Saints fans are well aware: former starting tight end Benjamin Watson has now retired from the NFL. This leaves the Black and Gold with three players on the roster at the position whom all are undrafted veterans and have played as back-ups since they came to NOLA: Josh Hill, Dan Arnold, and Garrett Griffin. However, none of them are thought of as “starting-caliber.”

While it would be accurate to say that James isn’t exactly what you’d consider a household name just yet, he still has managed to make his mark since coming into the NFL by performing exceptionally well whenever he needed to or was asked to do so.

But what mainly makes James stand out is that he was able to put himself on the proverbial map in spite of his more-famous teammates (QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR’s Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, and now former Steelers RB LeVeon Bell) getting all of the attention from the media outlets and entities that cover the NFL daily.

Also, even though he lost his starting role as the  #1 tight end to fellow Steelers teammate Vance McDonald last season, James still caught 30 passes (only 20 less than McDonald’s 50) for 423 yards and 2 TDs.

Unquestionably, James has somehow managed to fly “under the radar” all of this time; as evidenced by the fact that he’s caught 113 receptions over the last 3 seasons, which quite honestly is a remarkable stat when you think about how Pittsburgh distributes the football to their wide variety of offensive weapons on that side of the ball.

In four NFL seasons, James has played in 56 total games (with 36 starts), caught 120 passes for 1,189 yards, and has scored a total of 9 TDs. While those might not be Rob Gronkowski or Travis Kelce-like numbers by any stretch, James’ stats just from last season nearly matched what the Saints got from their entire TE group combined.

Make no mistake: James isn’t a superior athlete by any stretch, and that notion is supported by his  40-yard dash time (4.66 seconds) coming out of college. However, James, whom the Steelers chose in the 5th Round of the 2015 NFL Draft (#160 overall), quite literally “towers” over defenders with his 6-foot-7 and 261-pound frame.

It’s that size James possesses, which allows him to “high point” catching the football on passing plays often against much smaller defenders; in a very similar manner to that of a power forward in basketball grabbing a rebound. However, what should make James even all the more appealing to New Orleans besides his notable receiving stats, is the fact that he’s an outstanding blocker; a trait coveted by Saints head coach Sean Payton.

Throughout the majority of his time in the Steel City, Pittsburgh often would have James help “seal the edge” for Le’Veon Bell to bounce outside on running plays; which eventually led to Bell becoming the #1 RB in the entire League. Nevertheless, it’s also important to acknowledge that James is a sure-handed receiver, given his accomplishments in the receiving stats department up to this point.

As a point of reference for Who Dats of all ages: think of James as a slightly slower version of current back-up Josh Hill (a great blocker), but with the receiving capability of a young Jimmy Graham (a great pass-catcher).

Saints fans that follow the NFL Draft closely might recall that James was heavily criticized by several prominent draft analysts as well as a few anonymous League front-office personnel types (along with a handful of NFL scouts) who all felt that he left college a year too early, following the completion of his Junior season with the Nittany Lions in 2014. James ended up playing the equivalent of 2 and a half seasons for the storied Penn State football program, becoming a starter halfway through his Freshman year during the 2012 Season.

In his first taste of big-time college football competition, James came on towards the end of that year and caught 15 receptions for 276 yards, while remarkably tying the school record with 5 TD’s in a single season by a tight end. James showed further potential as a sophomore during the 2013 Season, as the Glassport, Pennsylvania native started in all 12 games and caught 25 passes for 333 yards and 3 TDs.

Then as a junior in 2014, James had his best season to date by that point; as he tallied 38 receptions for 396 yards and another 3 TD’s; and additionally he ended up breaking the school’s record for career touchdowns by a tight end, passing former Penn State legend and 1960’s era San Francisco 49ers TE Ted Kwalick.

James finished his abbreviated 3-year career at Penn State with 76 receptions for 1,005 yards and 11 touchdowns.

However, the consensus was that James — who had just turned 20 years old — might have benefited greatly and could have even furthered his development by returning for his Senior year and playing one final season at Penn State rather than declaring for the 2015 NFL Draft.

The knock on him ironically at the time was that he wasn’t that great of a run blocker and that even worse: he was “inconsistent adjusting to poorly thrown balls and making the tough catch”.

It probably goes without saying: either the experts got their evaluation of James completely wrong, or they actually were “spot-on”; and we are currently witnessing the maturation process of James’ eventual development as a professional player right before our very eyes.

Clearly, James is the classic textbook definition of the term “late bloomer.”

Near the end of last season, James told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat writer Ray Fittipaldo that he has “no doubt” he made the right decision by choosing the route to the NFL that he eventually did.

“You only have a limited time when you’re going to be able to play football so you might as well get paid for it,” James told Fittipaldo. “I knew I was ready and good enough to compete at the next level. Whether I was drafted in the fifth, the second or the seventh round, it didn’t matter. I knew I was going to be quality enough to make a roster and earn my stripes in the league. You just have to be confident in yourself that you can go out and make plays at the next level.”

Not only has James shown the capability to make plays in the receiving game that no one thought that he could, but he also has proven to be very durable. Fittipaldo notes that James has now played in 56 consecutive games, a streak that now dates all the way back to the middle of his 2015 rookie season.

“What’s not to love about him?” Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner told Fittipaldo. “His durability has proven enough. He’s out there play after play after play.”

The one major issue that could thwart the Saints from pursuing James in Free Agency next month is his willingness to be away from home and the team that he grew up rooting for as a kid. As noted above: James is a Glassport, PA native, which is a suburb only just 10 miles south of the metropolitan Pittsburgh area.

It’s believed that James is more than willing to offer the Steelers a “hometown discount”; but given that Pittsburgh team brass has already made a prior financial commitment to their #1 TE Vance McDonald, it’s possible that they’ll allow James to test his value on the open Free Agent market.

James has previously said that he would like to continue playing in his hometown next season, but he did acknowledge to Fittipaldo that he already knows that nothing is guaranteed at this point of his burgeoning NFL career.

“I have no idea what’s going to happen after the year,” James said. “I try not to think about what’s going to happen in the future just because I can’t control it. It’s for the people upstairs and my agent to handle. It’s nothing I can think about. I can’t add anything to it so I just try to keep it out of my head and keep my thinking week to week.”

James — who originally signed a 4-year, $2.48 million deal as a rookie in 2015 and earned most of that money ($1.95 million) in total salary last season — isn’t expected to seek out or be asking for a whole lot of money in any potential new contract.

However, it seems fairly obvious that he will be giving whichever team that’s willing to give him the opportunity to become a full-fledged #1 starter, some serious consideration.

In just a few more short weeks from now, we’ll find out if the New Orleans Saints will be that team.

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.

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