2017 Midseason Player Evaluations: TE Jesse James

With the Pittsburgh Steelers coming off their bye week and there soon being little to talk about in the interim outside of returning players, now would be as good a time as any to take a look back on what’s transpired this season and give out some mid-year player evaluations.

The team has had a rocky but ultimately successful season to date, coming out of the first eight games with a 6-2 record, tied for the best in the AFC along with the Patriots and the Chiefs, the latter of whom they have already beaten.

The offense has not lived up to its billing for the most part this year, though the running game has had its moments. Defensively, the sacks have come, and the secondary has improved, but there will always be things to work on.

Player: Jesse James, TE

Until he isn’t, third-year tight end Jesse James is the Steelers’ starter at the position. It’s already been that way for a season and a half. I’m not sure how much longer it could remain that way. It could be another few years for all we know. Or it could already be over.

The team was so disappointed with the performance of their tight end trouble during the offseason that they pulled the trigger on a trade to take on 49ers tight end Vance McDonald and his bulky contract. It has taken some time and some growing pains, but he has been finally worked into the offense.

Unfortunately, minor injuries have already caused him to miss about two and a half games. That included Sunday’s game against the Lions, and most of the second half of the previous game, up to which point McDonald was actually seeing more playing time, and a bigger role, than James.

In the previous two games leading into Sunday, James had not even caught a pass, or been officially targeted on a play that counted. McDonald caught three passes, two of which were for receptions of at least 25 yards.

James had a big play of his own on Sunday, a short pass on which he was thrown into space, able to catch and run for over 30 yards, which was, I believe, the longest play of his career. It was a better showing as a receiver, though he was still inconsistent as a blocker.

McDonald had slowly but surely been taking over many of James’ blocking responsibilities in the offense, and I can’t help but assume that that transition will continue to take place in the second half of the season, provided that he is healthy.

One would assume that he will also lose ground in receiving roles. In the previous game, it was McDonald running with the two-minute offense. James has always been better suited to a complementary role as the number two tight end, even if he has come short of being a disaster as a starter.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    If heath had stayed one more year before retiring or if Matt hadn’t got hurt in the same period I wonder if Jesse and his progression wouldn’t have been better off.

    I wanted to like the kid. I really did. But he is not good for us. I wonder if being shouldered with the responsibilities as a #1 tight end in his second year was too much.

    Grade d.

  • dany

    Spaeth was not a great blocker early on and years with Heath seemed to pay off so you might not be wrong

  • francesco

    McDonald has been a big disappointment so far. We would be have been fine with JJ and Grimble. This was a bad signing in my opinion.
    Instead of Holba in the 7th round we could have picked a TE.

  • Following_Christ

    It’s really unfair to compare any TE that doesn’t incite a “Heeeeaaaattthh!” chant every time he’s thrown to, since Heath was such a well-rounded and productive TE, and was always Ben’s safety valve if/when a play broke down.
    And while Spaeth seemed to have hands of stone at times, I do recall him making a few very tough and contested catches at critical times in certain games.
    At the end of his time in Pitt he excelled as a blocker on all downs, but was rarely looked to as a pass catcher. So was his lack of targets because he basically sucked as a receiver, or because throwing to him would take away targets from Heath who rarely dropped a pass?

    Basically what I’m saying, is JJ’s lack of use because he lacks talent and hasn’t progressed, or is it because that safety valve position has been so successfully filled by Bell, who is more than just a great pass catching RB, but also excels as a blocker?

  • NinjaMountie

    I still like James. I’m ready to have a more dependable TE but he keeps fighting. If he were a great blocker I could live with his average receiving ability easily. IF he just did one thing great instead of being average at everything.

  • PittShawnC

    James has reliable hands but just doesn’t bring the dynamic vertical ability to the position they’re looking for. His 2016 yds/rec we’re terrible (lowest for a Steelers TE since 1971 I think lol) but he catches the ball. I think we could use him more.

  • capehouse

    James reminds me of Burns in the way they’re talked about. I’m disappointed in James this year and cringe sometimes watching him miss blocks but he’s also out there making plays and good blocks that don’t get talked about because people harp on the negative. He’s nowhere near as good an athlete or blocker as McDonald but he’s also not a choke artist and his concentration on that catch last week where Davis tried for the INT was solid.

  • Mark

    Jesse is more than inconsistent in the run blocking game. There are way too many instances of him getting blown up in the running game. I see him as only a redzone threat inside the 5 yard line, a tall target for Ben. It is quite evident that the Steelers are less than enamored with him as the starting TE by trading for Vance McDonald.

    Please put together an analysis of Jesse’s run blocking and watch the comments.

  • Rocksolid20

    It’s always hard to be the man that follows the man .

  • Matthew Marczi

    McDonald has been invaluable as a run-blocker and he’s starting to make big catches. I’m not sure what you’re so disappointed by.

    Holba was a sixth-round pick, by the way, and I doubt there were any tight ends who would have made the roster in the last two rounds. There’s still Jake McGee on the practice squad.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I think he could be a very solid number two. We just have to find a number one…

  • francesco

    You’re right it was the 6th round. But anyways like you said…McDonald is not really a number 1 TE so what’s the point. If we were looking for a blocking TE I’m certain David Johnson was going to be just fine.
    By signing McDonald we have stifled JJ and Grimble from progressing further. We are no further ahead in this group and that’s what I’m basically saying.

  • Brenton deed

    James is OK for a mid round pick and he keeps improving slowly. Tall guys tend to run like giraffes and I noticed on that reception in Detroit he showed more knee lift and more speed (all things are relative of course).
    This makes me think he’s smart and working on his weakness which is a good sign … if he plays until he’s 40 we might have a HOFer on our hands!!

  • Matthew Marczi

    James and Grimble are not going to progress further. It’s not like either of them have the potential to be quality starters. At least McDonald offers that possibility.

  • Charles Haines

    he lacks talent.

  • Charles Haines

    It’s ok if your TE can’t block well if he excels in other areas (jimmy graham) but JJ is below average at everything. VM is much better but I don’t think Ben trusts him, and rightfully so.

  • NinjaMountie

    I agree with one minor correction. JJ is average at everything.

  • NinjaMountie

    Yeah, because there are a plethora of 7th (or 6th if we’re using the correct draft position) round TEs blowing up the league. Sigh.

  • NinjaMountie

    I’ll give the kid credit, every time he’s written off he comes out with a big game. If I had to play the “if only” game with him I’d say I would be happy with him as a receiver If Only he blocked like a starting TE.

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    upgrading when you can is always the better idea.

  • Jason Dock Dudley

    James is a good player. He is just not stellar. James is a quality player to have on your team. He was a good 6th round pick but he is not the guy you want as your long-term starter.

  • francesco

    Ok keep on believing that McDonald will make a difference. For sure he is being given multiple chances to succeed as opposed to any reasonable chances that were afforded to JJ or Grimble thus far.

  • francesco

    I’m not advocating that they strictly needed to draft a TE.
    But I’m sure that there were better TE’s available in FA than McDonald.

  • Matthew Marczi

    He’s already made more of a difference than James has.