Last year around this time, it looked like the Detroit Lions had finally turned around their tight end position after years of struggling to find a solution. They had spent their first-round pick on T.J. Hockenson, and thrown a lot of money at arguably the best tight end in free agency: Jesse James.
The two, in theory, would combine to be a pretty solid force in Detroit and maybe even bring back into style the two-tight end formation that found so much success in New England a few years back.
But things didn’t exactly turn out that way. Let’s look at the 2019 season of Jesse James, what went wrong, and how his role could change this year.
Expectations heading into 2019
As mentioned above, James was considered a major signing in free agency. The Lions inked him to a four-year, $22.6 million contract. Even a year later, that average per year number still ranks in the top 20 at his position.
In his last year with the Steelers, James showed some serious improvement, hauling in 30 catches for 423 yards and an impressive 14.1 yards per catch, which was sixth-highest among all tight ends that season.
The Lions saw that potential—and James’ young age (24 at the time of signing)—and figured he could take a serious step in an aggressive Darrell Bevell offense.
Actual role in 2019
2019 stats: 16 games (11 starts): 16 catches, 142 yards
PFF grade: 53.7 (64th of 79 qualifying TEs)
It’s fair to say that no player had a more disappointing season than Jesse James. After drafting Hockenson, James became a complete afterthought in the offense. Though he played in over 45 percent of offensive snaps and started 11 games, he only saw 27 passes come his way.
According to PFF, around 62 percent of James’ snaps were utilized to run or pass block. Unfortunately for James, he was just as ineffective in that part of his game, earning a pass-blocking PFF grade of 48.3 and run-blocking grade of 54.6.
Outlook for 2020
Contract status: Signed through 2022 (2023 is automatically voided)
Contractually speaking, James has a guaranteed spot on the roster for 2020. Though he takes a significant $5.3 million in cap space away this year, he would cost nearly $4 million in cap space this year and another $4.3 million in cap space next year should he get released between now and the start of the season. Even next year, a release seems somewhat unlikely. His cap hit jumps to $6.4 million, but the Lions would save just $2.1 million and eat a $4.3 million dead cap hit. Unless the Lions decide they’re in completely “sunken cost” territory, James is likely on the roster through the 2021 season.
But the question is can Jesse James actually turn it around? After the season, general manager Bob Quinn admitted they need more out of him and he fully expects him to be a big part of the offense.
“Jesse James needs to get more involved in the offense,” Quinn said. “I think when you sign a tight end in the offseason and then you draft one in the first round, it’s kind of hard. It was kind of a hard thing for Jesse. But I know Jesse is excited about going forward with a really deep tight end room and that’s going to be a big part of our offense going forward.”
And there is some reason for optimism. 2019 was an abnormally poor season from James. Take a look at his previous four seasons with the Steelers.
2015: 8 catches, 56 yards, 1 TD; PFF grade: 71.6
2016: 39 catches, 338 yards, 3 TDs; PFF grade: 64.8
2017: 43 catches, 372 yards, 3 TDs; PFF grade: 57.2
2018: 30 catches, 423 yards, 2 TDs; PFF grade: 65.2
2019: 16 catches, 142 yards, 0 TDs; PFF grade: 53.7
James’ career was on a clear upward trajectory before landing in Detroit, so there is some reason to believe that the Lions simply were misusing him or failing to get the most out of his talent. The Lions will have a new tight ends coach in Ben Johnson, who replaces Chris White.
But one has to wonder how many opportunities are left for James, given Detroit’s deep arsenal of receiving weapons. Not only do they have a solid trio in Marvin Jones Jr., Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola at wide receiver, but James will also have to compete with Hockenson, and running backs D’Andre Swift and Kerryon Johnson for targets.
There’s only so much ball that can go around, and James has yet to develop any tangible trust between himself and Matthew Stafford. Of his 16 catches last year, only eight of them came from Stafford. Nearly half of James’ production came in the last four games of the season—when the Lions were depleted by injuries to Jones and Hockenson.
With a fully-healthy squad, it’s hard to see James making a huge jump in 2020, but he should still prove to be a more valuable commodity than he was last season.