When former Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James signed a four-year $28.5 million contract with the Detroit Lions in March 2019, he fully expected to become the team’s No. 1 option at the position.
But his first season with the Lions was “brutal,” as he puts it, not only because his production diminished to virtually nothing, but because the team suffered through a 3-12-1 season. Oh, and did I mention that the Lions also used a Top 10 draft pick at his position just two months after signing him in free agency?
First Year in Detroit His ‘Toughest Year as a Pro’
“Toughest year I had as a pro, for sure,” James said Thursday, referring to 2019, during an interview reported by the Detroit Free Press. “It was just, worked as hard as you could in the middle of the year and nothing really ended up working out for me personally, but that’s just part of the job and didn’t change the way I approached the work week. So I learned a lot, got better and feel like I’ve improved a lot since then.”
James has to hope so. He caught 120 passes with nine touchdowns during four seasons in Pittsburgh, making 36 starts in 56 games. But in his first year in Detroit he hauled in a mere 16 passes for 142 yards, with quarterback Matthew Stafford making extensive use of a wide receiver corps that featured Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola, the former contributing 11 touchdown receptions.
Meanwhile, there’s another high-priced player in the tight end room in the form of T.J. Hockenson, selected eighth overall in the 2019 draft out of the University of Iowa. Hockenson made seven starts and played in 12 games during his rookie campaign, catching 32 passes for 367 yards and two touchdowns.
Jesse James Will Always Be Remembered in Pittsburgh
Regardless of what happens during the rest of his career, James will always be remembered in Pittsburgh for one of the most famous non-catches in NFL history.
During the last minute of a December 2017 game versus the New England Patriots at Heinz Field, the Steelers appeared to have taken a three-point lead thanks to a 10-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to James. But upon further review, the touchdown was overturned because James was seen as not having control of the ball as he crossed the goal line. The Steelers lost the game 27-24.
Jesse James a Future Cap Casualty?
James was selected by the Steelers in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL draft out of Penn State University. According to overthecap.com, he is scheduled to earn $3.8 million this season. If his production doesn’t improve dramatically, he will likely become a cap casualty during one of the next two offseasons as his salary is scheduled to rise to $4.95 million in 2021 and $5.7 million in 2022.
James received a $7.145 million signing bonus as part of his contract with the Lions, so the Lions could cut him in 2021 or 2022 with a very manageable cap charge.
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