Penn State Football

Steelers’ TE Jesse James won’t accept this label. He’s proven why he shouldn’t

‘I’m a stable guy here’ says Steelers tight end

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end and former Penn State stand out Jesse James talks about his offseason and role with the team.
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Pittsburgh Steelers tight end and former Penn State stand out Jesse James talks about his offseason and role with the team.

Go on and label Jesse James a backup player. Point out that he’s No. 2 on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ depth chart.

The former Penn State tight end doesn’t much care. He believes that won’t matter for long.

“They could list whoever they want,” James told the CDT early in the week. “They’ve been trying to do that for the past three years. They’ve done a really bad job at it.

“So I’m going to take it how it is. They’ve tried to replace me plenty of times. It’s not going to change; I’m going to still be here doing what I do.”

It’s been far from a cushy three seasons for James, who’s in his final year of a $2.49 million rookie contract. In 2016, with the departure of the two ends in front of him, the Steelers signed Ladarius Green to a four-year, $20 million contract — but injuries didn’t allow him to start until December, before he got injured yet again and was released. And, in 2017, Pittsburgh traded for San Francisco’s Vance McDonald in August and then watched him suffer a series of in-season injuries: lower-lumbar muscle spasms, a knee bruise, a sprained ankle and a shoulder injury. But he still started over James when healthy down the stretch.

Now, on the most recent Steelers’ depth chart, McDonald is again listed ahead of James. But the soft-spoken Penn State alum insists he isn’t concerned.

“They’ve tried to replace me multiple times, and they haven’t been able to,” James said. “I’ve been the stable guy here, and I plan to keep it that way.”

James hasn’t completed a full season as the Steelers’ top option, but he’s still been a valuable asset. Not only has he racked up 90 catches for 766 yards and seven touchdowns the last two seasons but, according to Steelers Depot, he has missed just one practice his entire NFL career — and that was in his rookie season. McDonald suffered a foot injury July 29 and missed the Steelers’ first preseason game Thursday.

“I’ve had a great offseason,” James added after Tuesday morning’s practice. “I took care of my body, I got here in good shape. And camp so far, I’ve just been trying to get better, been trying to grow. I’m doing a good job, getting better every day, blocking well, making plays when they come to me — so we’ll see what happens out on the field during the preseason games. But I feel good about it.”

James said he “wasn’t asked to do much” in his final season with the Nittany Lions, so he said he’s grown a lot as an NFL player. He’s not the run-blocker McDonald is — Pro Football Focus lists McDonald as the NFL’s No. 2 in that department — but he’s undoubtedly improved that aspect of his game.

During practice Tuesday, he was routinely a half-step ahead of the linebackers. His first would-be catch was just out of reach — “Get that!” Ben Roethlisberger yelled — but, a few minutes later, he adjusted his body on an underthrown Mason Rudolph pass and made a shoestring catch. The crowd on lawn chairs behind him gasped and clapped.

James doesn’t know if this will be his final season in Pittsburgh, but he’s trying not to think about that. For now, he’s just focused on camp — and racing home to relax with his dogs afterward.

“Whatever happens happens,” he said. “We’ll see. I’m not really focused on next year.

“I’m not sure what my future holds, if I’ll be here or if I’ll be somewhere else. It’s up to what my agent can do and all that stuff, so we’ll see what happens.”