With the failed signing of Ladarius Green, the Steelers are now a bit thin at tight end. It likely means the team is going to be using a lot of the third year tight end Jesse James in 2017. James hardly played as a rookie in 2015, but last season saw 60 targets and caught 39 passes. How did James fare as a receiver, and can he mold into the pass catching tight end threat that the Steelers have been looking for? Here is a breakdown of all of his 2016 targets.
Dissecting Jesse James as a Pass Catcher
The first positive note with James is how reliable he was. James had a 67% catch rate, which is strong on its own. However, of his 21 failed targets, four were throw aways, two were tipped at the line, three were underthrown, one was too high, and another was Landry Jones overthrowing James down the field. Discounting those 11 incompletions, James caught 39 of his 49 catchable targets. That would give him a catch percentage of 79.5%.
Sure, other receivers have the same issue and most players catch percentage would increase when taking away non-catchable passes. Still, James would rank first in the NFL of all non-running backs with that catch percentage. Jack Doyle leads non-running backs with a 78.4 percentage. Needless to say, James was a reliable pass catcher last season.
As the season went on, it became quite apparent that James had a great acumen and understanding of schemes and alignments. The Steelers gave him a lot of option routes. Essentially his role was to find soft spots in the zone, sit in them and move with Ben Roethlisberger to extend plays or be used as a safety valve. Of his 60 targets, 21 were situations where he was responsible to just find space.
Take the play below for example. James essentially just runs up the seam and waits for the ball. He knows immediately that he has space and turns to accept the ball for an easy first down.
In the play below, James does a simple curl route. He understands the spacing to his left and branches off of the route to create space.
Of the 21 targets in which he found space, Roethlisberger completed 16 passes to James, a 76% success rate.
Ever since the days of Plaxico Burress, Ben Roethlisberger has been clamoring for a tall red zone wide receiver. From Dallas Baker, Limas Sweed, to the most recent drafting of Martavis Bryant, the Steelers have been looking for that threat. However, they may have something here in the 6’7” tight end. A week two touchdown shows how James is able to use his arm length and size to catch a pass many others could not, and turn it into six.
Lack of consistency catching away from his body
While his long frame and arms are a great attribute, it is not a skill that he has consistently acquired yet. There are times where he would have to extend his arms while moving down the field, and it typically did not go well. He has a strong catch radius, he just does not have experience using it yet. He will need to make this catch to be a relied on top tight end target.
Lack of Physicality
While five of his 10 at fault incompletions were failure to reach and make a play on the ball, he also saw some drops that were right in his breadbasket. There were three situations where the ball was thrown well, but he was hit or disrupted as he was catching it and it resulted in an incompletion. James will have to improve his physicality to make these tougher catches if he wants to be a consistent relied on target.
Yards After Catch
There were also situations where the lack of physicality as well as vision had him leaving plays on the field. There were at least five situations where he could have fought or found extra yards to create a first down or a touchdown and did not. James left yards on the field last season and will have to learn the value of avoiding third-and-ones and turning them into first downs or touchdowns.
In fact, of his 39 receptions, 26 went for eight yards or less. 66% of the time James was not able to pick up 10 yards, and in almost all 26 he was tackled immediately as he caught it for no yards after the catch. Of the top 300 receivers in the NFL last season, James ranked 276th in yards after the reception.
James caught three touchdowns last season, all three being caught in the end zone. He never found a way to avoid tackles, create extra yards, and turn an eight-yard reception into a 10-yard touchdown.
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Poor route runner
James also has a very limited route tree. It is likely because he lacks any real nuance or finesse to his route running. James is very slow off of the line. He also does not make crisp breaks, he struggles to plant and make sharp cuts, and typically teams know where he is running.
Of his 60 targets, 34 of his routes could be defined as “simple routes”. The majority of these are the 21 targets where his job is to sit in the zone and find space. Some other targets include drags, slants, flares to the flats and times where James would chip block and turn his body to be a safety valve receiver at the line of scrimmage.
The most diverse routes he ran were posts (five), corner posts (three), wheel routes (four) and a stop and go where he ended up sitting down in a zone. He essentially only ran 13 routes down the field.
Clutch in the playoffs
When the clutch moments of the playoffs came, James appeared to be ready to shine. His three best games of the season came in week 16 against the Ravens and were followed up by the divisional round game and the AFC Championship. In those three games, he caught 14 of his 18 targets. Only five of his 14 receptions went for less than eight yards, 10 went for first downs and three of the four incompletions were not on him.
James was essentially on the same page as Roethlisberger at that point, and most of his routes were tied into him finding space and Roethlisberger finding him. James even showed the physicality to create yards after the catch.
Compare this play to the week seven example where he failed to get a first down. Both times he had to drop to his knee to make a catch. In week seven, he came up without balance, was snatched up and dropped immediately. In this play, he gets up, sees space, runs hard to it and carries a defender for an extra couple of yards. This is toughness that James needs to show consistently throughout the season.
Jesse James is a very limited football player. He is not an elite athlete, he is not very nuanced and he does not bring tremendous strength and power. However, he is a savvy and reliable player. He catches everything in his area, he finds space in the middle of the field regularly and he takes what is given. When teams are clamping down on Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell it will be important for a player such as James to take advantage. James does just enough to keep teams honest and forces them to keep an eye on him at all times. He may never hit top tight end status, and does not have some of the nuanced play that Heath Miller once brought. Still, James is a reliable threat, and with a step forward in 2017 could become a dangerous receiving threat in the Steelers offense.