After failing to procure the services of one Pittsburgh Steelers pass catcher, the Buffalo Bills may choose to pursue another when free agency opens on Wednesday. Even before news of Buffalo’s pursuit of Antonio Brown broke, the team had been linked to Steelers tight end Jesse James.
The 6’7”, 260 lb tight end enters free agency just shy of his 25th birthday. A graduate of South Allegheny High School in the Pittsburgh suburbs, James attended Penn State University and has played his entire professional career in his home state. However, after referring to the 2018 version of the Steelers as “the Kardashians,” it appears that the big tight end will be looking for a change of scenery in 2019 (and it wouldn’t involve too far of a drive from Pennsylvania).
Just how does James fit in Buffalo? Well, if there were a perfect fit for a guy who shares a name with one of the most infamous outlaws of the nineteenth century, it would certainly be a team whose name often brings to mind one of the most famous frontiersmen of the nineteenth century. There are a few relevant football reasons, as well.
James isn’t a freak athlete in the way Rob Gronkowski is; however, he isn’t a slouch. James ran a 4.8-second forty-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Draft combine, though he ran a 4.69-forty at Penn State’s pro day that March. His 26 reps on the bench press were second among tight ends that year, trailing only Gerald Christian, who put up 28 reps. James has shown himself to be a more-than-capable tight end in the NFL over the course of his career.
Middling Production a Concern?
James has started 36 games for Pittsburgh, yet he hasn’t made more than 43 catches in a season over his four-year career. That high-water mark came in 2017. He set a career-high in receiving yards this past season, totaling 423 yards. His career-high mark for receiving touchdowns is three—a total he reached in both 2016 and 2017. As a team, Pittsburgh has passed 590, 596, 590, and 689 times in his four seasons; in those, James saw 11, 60, 63, and 39 targets, respectively. Granted, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spent most of his time targeting Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, but the fact remains James was never a big part of a pass-happy offense in Pittsburgh.
Jesse James is an outstanding blocker. Pro Football Focus graded him at a 76.8 in pass protection for the 2018 season, which could help to explain why his receiving numbers were not so great. With Vance McDonald serving as the “receiving” tight end, James was often used as an extra offensive tackle to protect Roethlisberger, and he was outstanding in his role. Overall, PFF graded James as the league’s number 30 tight end, grading him at a 66.4, which was above-average for his position.
What Will He Cost?
Dwayne Allen just signed a two-year deal with the Miami Dolphins worth $7 million total. While Allen is known as a block-first tight end, he is also 29 years old, so James will almost certainly earn a more lucrative deal than Allen. Spotrac lists James’s market value at $36 million over six years, which frankly seems much too high for a player with his career production. The site lists Cameron Brate, Trey Burton, Jack Doyle, and Ryan Griffin as comparable players, all of whom were at least two years older than James will be when he signs his first free-agent deal. If the Bills could sign him for a deal closer to what the Indianapolis Colts paid Doyle—three years, $19 million—then it would absolutely be worth it. Even giving him a fourth year at a total value of $24 million seems better than committing to a tight end for six years whose 16-game average season involves a “slash line” of 34/340/3. For comparison, Doyle signed his deal after a season where he caught 59 passes for 584 yards and five touchdowns. If the Bills like James, he’s definitely worth pursuing, but he does not seem to be a player worth breaking the bank for.