ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Jesse James believes he’s capable of more. More than what he was able to do in Pittsburgh. More than he was asked to do. He looks back at his four years with the Steelers and saw he did some things well.
But now, as he enters his first week with the Detroit Lions, he believes he will be used differently. It’s why he signed with the franchise for four years at the start of free agency and why he explained confidently that he has an idea of what he’s capable of.
“I’ve had some success in Pittsburgh, but I think it could have been better,” James said. “Offensively I wasn’t used the way I feel like I could be used. I feel like my ceiling here is much higher than it was in the past.”
In Pittsburgh, where he had 30 catches for 423 yards and two touchdowns as part of a timeshare with Vance McDonald, he was used in specific roles on first and second downs. In Detroit, he sees himself as more of an every-down tight end.
That would include being a third-down option and a red-zone target, a massive 6-foot-7 option for Matthew Stafford. And that, compared to what the Lions had in 2018 after cutting eventual Pro Bowler Eric Ebron, would be a massive improvement.
The Lions received very little from their tight ends last year. Combined, Luke Willson, Levine Toilolo, Michael Roberts and Hakeem Valles combined for 45 receptions, 461 yards and four touchdowns. Those were close to what James produced on his own as a part-time player with McDonald.
And James has shown progress. He increased his yardage and yards per reception from his first three years with Pittsburgh to last season. He also improved his drop rate to where he dropped only one pass last season.
“I can be used more in situational-type plays, down in the red zone,” James said. “A lot of times in Pittsburgh I was splitting time with Vance so I was more of a first and second down and he would come in in third. So I’m looking forward to having that challenge of being in there on third down and helping the offense succeed in those kind of pressure moments.”
The Lions are going to have a different offensive structure, too, going from Jim Bob Cooter to Darrell Bevell. Bevell is expected – in line with what Matt Patricia wants – to have a heavier rushing presence. James is a good blocking tight end, so that should leave him on the field for those downs. If the Lions were to increase their play-action usage, which is an area Stafford is proficient in, that could lead to more opportunities for James.
While James is not Jimmy Graham – the tight end Bevell most recently used in Seattle – he has no issue using his tight end if he’s capable. Graham had more than 500 yards and five touchdowns in both of his last two seasons with Bevell. And the tight end has always found ways to be involved in a Bevell-constructed offense – certainly more so than the position group was for Detroit a season ago.
Which is why James decided to come to Detroit. There’s a chance for a bigger role and to break out even more than he did his last year with Pittsburgh.