The tight end position felt non-existent for the Detroit Lions at some points in 2018. With Eric Ebron out of the picture, Luke Willson and Levine Toilolo were tasked with replacing him and they combined for an abysmal 34 receptions for 350 yards.
General manager Bob Quinn clearly felt that more production from the position would be crucial to the team’s success down the line and landed the top free agent on the market in Jesse James. The former Pittsburgh Steeler agreed to a four-year deal worth $22 million at the start of free agency.
James out-produced the Lions duo on his own, with 423 yards on 30 receptions and two scores last year. He spent much of 2018 as Pittsburgh’s second tight end behind Vance McDonald. He still did earn a lot of playing time though, as the Steelers frequently put him on the field alongside McDonald.
As important as blocking is for a tight end, James will be expected to produce as a receiver for the Lions. He has never been high producing TE1 yet in his career, but he has shown some skills to build on in Detroit.
First, James can very creative when he is faced with man coverage. He is great at changing up his movements and keeping defenders on their heels. When plays break down, he is good at finding space and moving off script to leave the defender covering him in the dust. After he runs his initial route, he adds a bit to the end to shake himself free when defenders are covering him. This play is a good example:
The tight end is tasked with running out to the flat for a quick out and gets picked up by a linebacker in man coverage. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is flushed out of the pocket, and as the play breaks down he dashes to his left. James thinks off his feet fast, flips his body around, and darts downfield into open space. The quarterback finds him wide open the James runs for a huge gain.
James also has a great catch radius. He is great at getting an arm out and snagging passes that may seem out of reach for many. The tight end catches with his strong hands, rather than his body, and he rarely drops passes as a result.
While he does do a few things well, he does have a few major flaws as a receiver.
All of the creativity that James possess when he facing man coverage seems to vanish when he is forced to find space within zone coverage. After James runs his route and gets to his spot, he usually just stands there. He does not keep his feet moving to find space or create space for others in zone, and seems content just being covered.
This play against the Cleveland Browns is an example:
James is lined up in the slot against zone coverage. He runs a seam route and is picked up by a safety. When he turns around to break on his route he is blanketed and his quarterback is desperate to find a receiver open. He lingers for a minute in his spot before moving a bit to try to find space, but never makes a real effort to create a passing lane in a congested area.
James also struggles as a route runner. He routes are not very crisp and he does not stem well either. The former Steeler does not attack his routes, and he is not as aggressive as he needs to be when working against man coverage.
James is tasked with running a corner-post against zone coverage on this play. The defender that would eventually be tasked with covering the tight end has his back to James at some point, and a well-run route should easily break James into space. His cuts are not as decisive and strong as they should be, though, and the defender is able to easily recover and blanket James on the play.
His lack of aggression does not only hurt him on his route running. While he definitely has the hands and catch radius to make spectacular grabs, he does not have the mentality to. He does not attack the point of the catch very well, especially when he has a defender nearby. James does not come back to the ball as well as he needs to, and he could do a better job fighting through contact to make a catch.
James is not really a YAC-monster after the catch, but he does do a great job fighting for the extra yard. He does not have a dazzling feet that Golden Tate had and rarely can shake himself away from a tackler. He is great at keeping his feet churning, though, and usually earns a few extra yards the defense should not have given him.
While catching passes will be the most important part of James’ job for the Lions, blocking will be imperative as well.
James is an average blocker. He is usually a great pass protector, but occasionally will have a stinker of a game against better pass rushers—like when Cleveland Browns edge Myles Garrett ate his lunch in Week 1.
His run blocking is interesting, though.
Usually when a player is tasked with being a run blocker, their job is to either push someone out of a spot and create room for the running back. James does not do a very good job at creating space when he is run blocking, but he is good at holding his ground. He will lock up his assignment in place, which is great, but opening lanes is certainly not his specialty.
James run blocking is inconsistent at best. While he usually can get the bare minimum done, he sometimes gets beat pretty badly and allows a play to get blown up in the backfield.
James got absolutely beat by the Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman on the play, and if not for a missed tackle it would have been blown up in the backfield.
The Steelers also put James in motion as a blocker fairly often, just like the Lions often did with their tight ends last season. Similar to his run blocking at the line, it is hit or miss. Sometimes he will get out in space and deliver a great block, and sometimes he will just miss his man entirely and look lost.
So is James Detroit’s answer at tight end?
James seems like a valuable TE2, but not much more. While Detroit will not be doomed if they enter the 2019 season with the former Steeler as their top tight end—they will actually be better off than last season—if this team is truly as all-in as many of their moves in free agency indicate, then they may need better.
The Lions will need a tight end that can produce more as a receiver if they want to have an elite offense in 2019, and the problem may work itself out if Iowa Hawkeyes tight end T.J. Hockenson is available when the team picks at #8 in the NFL draft.