When he committed to Penn State in early 2011, few could have expected that four years later, Jesse James would leave early, forgoing his senior year eligibility for a seemingly-inevitable mid-round draft pick in a year with a very weak class at the tight end position. Even as a seventeen year old, he already had the frame that would portend good things--but Penn State was the first major program to offer a scholarship to the titanic teenager, who cycled between tight end and offensive line in high school. An early enrollee who flirted with transferring after the NCAA handed down its sanctions, James quickly put his size to good use in Bill O'Brien's tight end-heavy offense, hauling in 15 catches for 276 yards and 5 touchdowns as a true freshman. James saw his red zone targets dwindle the next two years as Penn State transitioned from Matt McGloin to Christian Hackenberg--he only hauled in six TD catches in 2013 and 2014 combined--but saw his targets and receptions continue to climb; to 25 as a sophomore as Allen Robinson's second-fiddle and up to 38 a season ago.
Still, James always seemed to be on the precipice of breaking out in a truly huge way. He suffered a year ago from the introduction of John Donovan as both his position coach and offensive coordinator: rather than catch balls down the seam or in the middle of the field and rumble over people, as he showed a proclivity for under O'Brien, James was used primarily in the short passing game. And rarely, if ever, was the 6'7" giant split out wide for jump balls. Perhaps it was lapses in concentration that led to his deteriorating hands (James seemed to drop more passes in 2014 than he had in his first two years combined) and occasionally-lax blocking (especially when it came to sealing the edge in the run game)--if that's the case, some lucky NFL general manager might just have a steal on his hands. Which makes sense, since he's an outlaw.
What You're Getting
If somebody decides to pull the trigger a little bit early on James--perhaps even in the 2nd or 3rd round--it won't be hard to see why. On paper, he looks like the second coming of Rob Gronkowski. To wit: James measured in at 6'7", 261 pounds at the combine; back in 2010, Gronk checked in at 6'6, 264. At his pro day, James ran the 40-yard dash in 4.69 seconds; Gronk's, at the combine, was 4.68. James' 20-yard shuttle, at 4.5 seconds, was just .03 ticks slower than Gronkowski's. And in the other pursuits, James eclipsed the best tight end in the NFL. He benched 225 pounds 26 times to Gronk's 23; his broad jump of 10'1 topped Gronkowski's by two inches; and James' vertical jump of 37.5 bested Gronk's by four inches. Oh, and he had his best years in the complex Bill O'Brien offense that saw Gronk blossom into superstardom, so he's already received the crash course as to the role of a tight end in the NFL.
That, it should go without saying, is the best case scenario--and, I hate to admit, is a fairly unlikely one. While James' size, athleticism, and versatility guarantees him a lengthy career in the pros, his college career didn't quite indicate that he's on the path towards perennial All-Pro status--though we can only wonder how much he'd have impressed us if he could have played in a reasonably competent offense last year. Wedged into a complimentary role in a gimmicky spread offense, James disappeared at times last year, eclipsing the three-catch mark only thrice. Still, he finished behind just two other Lions in receptions and yards, and it's revealing that his three touchdown catches in 2014 led the team.
In the passing game, James has used his size to great effect--he's not nearly as quick or as strong in man coverage as Gronkowski--and when he's able to get free down the field it's more the result of good route-running, an excellent feel for the soft spots in zone defenses, and chemistry with his quarterback (especially on extended plays) than breaking free of a safety or linebacker. James has showed solid footwork along the sidelines, and the ability to go up and get balls (again, why John Donovan would call a fade route to somebody other than the 6'7 tight end with a 37-inch vertical is beyond me), but showed some frustrating lapses in bringing in the easier passes. Still, James is especially dangerous with the ball in his hands--not because of any great elusiveness (though once he gets rumbling, he's got some straight-line speed), but because he's a 260-pound battering ram aimed at the first down marker that defensive backs will have a hard time bringing down.
Like plenty of college tight ends, though, James is a work in progress as a blocker, especially in run support. He seems to be solid enough, fundamentally, but his play is somewhat mechanical, and he didn't quite display the nasty streak necessary to finish off blocks. The struggles of the Penn State tight ends last year to spring runners outside helped contribute to the Lions' complete futility on the ground--the team ranked 125th in yards/rush, and I didn't even realize there were that many teams in the FBS. He's better downfield, where James can throw his weight around at the next level, but he all too often got pushed back at the line by strong, physical defensive ends. Whether James' blocking improves rapidly will determine whether or not he makes it as a top-end starter in the NFL; as a traditional, pro-style tight end (rather than the flex-receiver type like Jimmy Graham or Greg Olsen) he's not going to be good enough as a pass-catcher to get away with inconsistent play there.
Right now, Jesse James does everything just well enough to stick around as a journeyman in the NFL. His frame and athleticism, however, suggest greatness. While James looks better on paper than he has thus far on the field, proper and continued development could turn him into a long-term starter. Whether he gets that time depends on how early he's drafted--but the late 3rd or early 4th round seems like a very reasonable target for the big tight end, especially considering the lack of other standouts at the position.