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Lions free agent profile: Grading the Jesse James signing

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Breaking down Jesse James’ NFL profile and how he fits with the Lions.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Jesse James was a name Detroit Lions fans knew well entering the free agency period. With tight end being one of the team’s biggest needs entering the new league year, James’ name was on the top of many Lions fans’ wish lists.

The Lions fulfilled that wish by signing James to a four-year, $25 million deal. On Wednesday, we were given the full breakdown of the contract, meaning we can finally give this signing the full analysis it deserves.

Potential

The entire purpose of this signing is to unlock the potential in Jesse James’ game. He only has a career high of 423 receiving yards in a season, and James clearly feels like his full potential has yet to be unlocked.

“I just think I can do more,” James said in his introductory presser. “Like I said, I’ve gotten better every year, I’m still young—24 years old. So my ceiling hasn’t been reached yet, and I know I still have a long way to go where I can get better and improve every day.”

His use in Pittsburgh was varied. He was essentially given a redshirt year in rookie season, because he entered the league at just 20 years old. However, in the next two years, James was a workhorse—playing in over 75 percent of the Steelers’ offensive snaps in each season, mainly as an inline tight end. Interestingly enough, his role significantly changed in 2018. His snap count dropped to just 50.4 percent, as the Steelers gave Vance McDonald a significant increase in playing time (from 24.5% in 2017 to 50.5%).

Despite the dip in playing time, James actually set career markes in receiving yards (423) and yards per catch (14.1—more than a 5-yard increase from his previous high) in 2018. It’s clear James is becoming more of a big-play threat, but he wasn’t getting the opportunities to show it often in Pittsburgh.

Athletic profile

James isn’t the super athletic tight end that will line up in the slot and test defenses deep. However, his agility numbers are off the charts, which would suggest he should be a phenomenal red-zone thread, especially taking into account his 6-foot-7 stature. However, the tight end has never had more than three touchdowns in a season.

Blocking?

As mostly an inline tight end for most of his career, James is an above-average blocker. James ranked as the sixth-best pass blocking tight end in 2018 according to PFF.

As a run blocker, however, James is inconsistent. Last year, PFF ranked him 27th in that category, but Behind the Steel Curtain has a fantastic breakdown of the strides James made in run blocking over the course of his 2017 season.

Value

James won’t cost the team much in cap space in 2019; his cap hit is just $2.3 million. However, that number quickly jumps to $5.3 million, $6.4 million and $7.2 million in 2020, 2021 and 2022 respectively.

Comparatively speaking, here’s where those cap hits rank among other tight ends:

2019: 31st
2020: 14th
2021: 8th
2022: 1st (out of a total of two TEs signed through ‘22)

Obviously, James’ rankings in those later years will drop as other tight ends get new contracts, so it’s fair to say James is getting a contract around the 15-20 range for the entirety of his contract.

Is that worth it? Well, that depends on whether the Lions view him as...

TE1 or TE2?

This is a question likely to be asked all the way through training camp, and it’s one that may not ever really receive an answer.

Here’s the thing: call him tight end 1, call him tight end 2, Jesse James is going to have a significant role with this offense. He could get around 50 percent of the snaps like he did in Pittsburgh last year, but James’ statements during his introductory press conference sure make it sound like he’s getting more opportunities.

He’s much more likely to get around 70-80 percent of snaps. Detroit is looking to get bulkier and more physical on offense, and James’ inline tight end profile is a pretty good fit for that. He won’t be the slot receiving threat that Eric Ebron briefly was in Detroit, but that may role not be as important under Darrell Bevell, especially after the Lions signed Danny Amendola this week.

Call him TE1 or TE2. Either way, the best way to describe James’ role in 2019 is “significant.”

Overall

If you’re hoping for a receiving tight end that’s going to pull in 900 yards and make the Pro Bowl with gaudy statistics, James isn’t your guy. However, if you’re looking for a guy that will be on the field for more than two-thirds of the snaps, providing stability as a pass blocker and an increased willingness to get dirty in the run game, James is exactly that man.

This isn’t to understate his skills as a receiver, he has some. But he’ll mostly be used getting those tough, physical yards over the middle of the field, and—hopefully—he’ll finally emerge as that red zone threat his profile fits.

The price originally seemed high for James, but considering the modest cap hits over the first few years and how much usage they’ll likely get out of him, I think it’s a fairly reasonable deal.

The Lions are relying upon a good amount of growth from James to fully pay off from their investments, but the 24-year-old has already shown a good amount of progress to take on the risk.

Grade: B

Poll

What grade do you give the Jesse James signing?

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    A
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  • 52%
    B
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