It’s the word that comes to mind when I watch Penn State tight end Jesse James. Fluid isn’t necessarily fast and it might be the one thing absent from James’ game–the only thing he needs to be far and away the best tight end prospect in this class.
The Boiler Room Series features select plays from a prospect’s portfolio of games. The intent is to boil down a player’s game to a few plays on tape as if presenting the prospect to a group of NFL decision makers–showing them key points that could spell the difference between pulling the trigger and standing pat.
Speed might be the missing ingredient in James’ potential NFL career. If his workouts display much better speed than the tape there may be reason for hope that his ceiling is much higher than what I’ve seen thus far.
James averaged 18.4 yards per catch as a freshman and followed up with a 13.3 yards per catch average as a sophomore, which screams speed at first glance, but as the reception totals increased throughout his career, the average dropped. This year, James averaged 10.4 yards per catch. Unless he played the past two years with a significant injury that hampered his speed and quickness, James’ earned his larger gains running free through zones preoccupied with other receivers.
A single play from the Penn State opener in Dublin, Ireland against the University of Central Florida illustrates what makes James a potential NFL contributor, but less likely a starter that a team will lean on in an NFL passing game.
A Play Evocative of Brent Celek
Seeking a tight end with hand-eye coordination, focus, and toughness? James is your man in a similar way that Celek has been for the Philadelphia Eagles. This 2nd and 2 with 1:49 in the half from a twin left, 2×1 receiver, 11 personnel shotgun set is the type of highlight I’ve seen from Celek for years.
James is inline next to the right tackle. His release off the line is fluid, if not quick, and he attacks the inside shoulder of the defensive back sliding outside to zone responsibility near the right hash. Watch how James bends the route inside the defensive back and then moves down field after this initial attack. This is skillful route running against a zone defender.
More on the route running in a moment, watch the route and the reception. James makes a strong extension for the ball over his inside shoulder, catches the pass with his hands in stride, and doesn’t shrink from the impending hit of the safety.
If James can make this play in the NFL on a consistent basis, he’ll have a shot at a productive career as a receiver. The questions that I have about James have nothing to do with his receiving skill–this play is not unusual for him. In fact, he has a strong catch radius and frequently wins passes with impending contact from a defender. I’m more concerned about how effective he’ll be at stretching the field and I don’t just mean pure vertical route running.
This play displays James’ knack for stretching zones. If he can do this as adroitly in the NFL as he has on this play, speed and quickness won’t be as vital of a need. NFL decision makers will need to have confidence by May that James can get quicker, faster, or run fantastic routes versus zone defenders.
Dennis Pitta was more fluid than fast at BYU and he developed into a key cog in an NFL passing game before his consecutive seasons with hip injuries. James is a player to watch–especially during pre-draft workouts–because the rest of his game is good enough to project as a starter with upside in the passing game if a team is sold that there’s speed and quickness to mine.
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