I think it’s pretty much common knowledge around here that I have been among the harshest critics of Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James. Not having anything to do with who he is as a player—certainly not as a person—but rather with the role that he has been thrust into.
I have, shall we say, shared my reservations in the past regarding whether or not he possesses an adequate level of skill to legitimately be a starting tight end over the long term for a quality offense. Even after this week’s gritty receiving performance, I would still lean toward a no, personally.
But the Steelers have been working around him, giving him, for example, fewer blocking assignments, with which he has been inconsistent, at best, and to his credit, he has stepped up his game in terms of coming up with tough catches, and making himself available to make them in the first place.
Most impressive, however, has to be simply his dependability, the fact that he is always there. Especially considering some of the hits that he has taken this season at the tail end of some receptions—including a couple of them from Sunday night—he has done a good job of taking care of himself and staying on the field.
That is a quality that has not gone unnoticed by his coaches. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley yesterday said to Jeremy Fowler of his third-year tight end that James has dealt with a lot of injury issues during the midpoint of this season.
“A lot of guys may never have even played”, he said, “and he didn’t miss a practice”. While I doubt that was any direct comment on Vance McDonald, who has missed five games this year due to three separate injuries and is lined up to miss a sixth, I’m sure it will be readily interpreted as such.
And you know what, being available is a pretty crucial aspect of any sport—or really any aspect of life. For as many stellar attributes Antonio Brown might have, his consistent availability is about as high up on the list as any. That includes a combination of both durability and preservation.
While the Steelers clearly favor having other options for blocking duties—they like to use a package involving McDonald and a tackle-eligible in two-tight-end sets, for example, with James on the sideline—the young tight end is beginning to develop into a reliable possession target.
And even as it somehow makes me laugh a bit, he has even demonstrated some semblance of elusiveness lately—or at least as elusive as a lanky body with limited athleticism and speed can demonstrate.
Suffice it to say, at the end of the day, the Steelers need Jesse James, because they have no other options available to them at the position that offer consistency. He is the best that they have, all factors considered, and while they could certainly do better, they could also do much worse. Just keep pulling in those tough catches, young man.