Anatomy of the Steelers drafts is an ongoing series leading up to the NFL Draft which examines the successes and failures of past Pittsburgh draft choices.
Today’s article focuses on the Steelers 2015 fifth round draft pick, Jesse James.
A true starter as a freshman at Penn State, James played three years with the Nittany Lions, setting the school’s all-time touchdowns by a tight end record. He finished his college career with 76 catches for 1,005 yards and 11 TD’s, on his way to being named to an All-Big Ten honorable mention.
With the large crossover of fans who follow both the Steelers and Penn State, James was a wishlist player for many. His NFL.com draft profile nailed his early struggles in the NFL:
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.
Other teams felt the same, passing over James until he fell to Pittsburgh in the fifth round.
The Steelers had not one, but two aging tight ends on their roster as they entered the 2015 season. Heath Miller owns practically every major franchise statistic for the position but had battled injuries over his final few seasons. Matt Spaeth was initially drafted by the Steelers, left, and returned. He was used almost exclusively as a blocking tight end but also struggled with dings and dents.
The team desperately needed to upgrade the position after passing on adding any additional players via free agency.
The Other Picks
The 2015 NFL Draft was not considered to have a deep tight end class. In fact, many felt that the Steelers would select the player who was considered to be the top of his class, Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams. Those paying close attention to the draft were so convinced of it, that they felt the Baltimore Ravens were too: they would move up to pick 55 in the second round, the selection right before Pittsburgh’s next at pick 56, to take Williams themselves.
Clive Walford, Tyler Kroft, Jeff Heuerman, Blake Bell, MyCole Pruitt, and C. J. Uzomah are the other tight ends were taken before the Steelers made James the 160th overall pick of the draft. And arguably, James has had the best career of them all thus far.
As for other players selected around the same time or after, the Steelers made out with their pick. New England later took A.J. Derby, and the Panthers stuck with Cameron Artis-Payne. The Chiefs picked LB D. J. Alexander, but he has been relegated to a special teams role (however, one in which he was so good at, he was named to the Pro Bowl last season).
Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth would both retire one year later, leaving the Steelers with James as the only tight end on their depth chart entering the offseason. Making one of their biggest free agent signings in recent memory, the team inked former Chargers tight end Ladarius Green to a four-year deal, but he would too succumb to injuries throughout the season which limited him to appearing in six games.
That would make James the starting tight end for nearly the entire 2016 season, one in which he would play the most snaps of any offensive player not playing on the line, or with a “B” prefacing their last name!
“The Outlaw” would fill in nicely, catching 39 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns in his 13 starts. Solid output for a fifth round pick!
Inside The Pittsburgh Steelers plans for the 2017 NFL Draft
For those who were asking about this year’s NFL Draft preview guide, we took your suggestions and turned up the volume 10x more with this new eBook. We spent countless hours putting together the statistics and information, much more than in our Draft Prep series, including rankings and combine results. We’ve priced Steelers War Room so we didn’t kill ourselves by working for peanuts, but also so it won’t cost you much more than a cup of coffee.