Jesse James‘ four-year rookie contract has come and gone, as the former fifth round pick out of Penn State is set to become a free agent this March. While the Steelers may try to re-sign him to a one or multiple year contract in the next several weeks, there’s a very good chance that the 24-year-old tight end will be on the open market when free agency officially begins on March 13.
“They gave me the opportunity to play and do the best that I can do,” James recently told Jacob Klinger of PennLive.com when asked about his future in Pittsburgh. “So, I made plays for this team, I’ve played the majority of snaps two seasons here. So I might not be the featured guy in the passing game, but I’ve played the majority of snaps since I’ve been here so I feel good about that.”
The 6’7, 254-pound James was a fairly productive tight end during his time at Penn State. In three years in State College, James, who played high school locally at South Allegheny, caught 11 touchdown passes that included five touchdown receptions during his freshman season. Overall, James caught 78 passes for 1,005 yards during his three years with the Nittany Lions. While many speculated that he would return for his senior season, James instead declared for the 2015 NFL Draft.
“Big, in-line tight end with room on his frame for more muscle, but he’s limited by a lack of functional athleticism and a mechanical play demeanor,” NFL.com wrote of James in their pre draft bio. “James isn’t a plus receiver with great hands and he lacks the quickness to consistently free himself from man coverage, so he must become a more determined run blocker in order to have a shot at starting in the NFL.”
Pittsburgh looked at James’ rookie season as a year of development. In 2015, James, playing behind the greatest tight end in Steelers’ history in Heath Miller, caught just eight passes for 56 yards but did score a critical touchdown in Pittsburgh’s midseason victory over Oakland. James then made his first career postseason reception, a 22-yard pickup, during the team’s loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos in the AFC divisional round.
With Miller retiring that offseason, James started 13 games in 2016, catching 39 of 60 targets for 338 yards and three scores. Despite catching two touchdown passes in Pittsburgh’s 2017 season opener, James’ numbers during his third season were similar to his 2016 output, catching 43 of 63 targets for 372 yards and three scores in 14 starts. In 2018, James received just seven starts while splitting time with 2017 free agent pickup, Vance McDonald. While his numbers paled in comparison to McDonald’s totals (50 receptions on 72 targets for 610 yards and four touchdowns), James still managed to catch 30 of 39 targets for a career high 423 yards and two touchdowns.
Given McDonald’s injury history, there’s a very good chance the Steelers make some kind of offer to James before the start of free agency. It will most likely come down what James is specifically looking for in his new deal and if that fits into what Pittsburgh wants to do with regard to his future with the team moving forward.