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Steelers TE Jesse James has a chance to steal some playing time in 2016

With Heath Miller retired, Matt Spaeth released, and newly signed Ladarius Green currently on the PUP list, second-year tight end Jesse James has a chance to make a name for himself, as the Steelers prepare for their first preseason game this Friday night at Heinz Field.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Training Camp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Some fans call Steelers second-year tight end Jesse James “The Outlaw.” It’s a bit cliched, but it’s catchy (what else are you going to call someone with that name)?

It also might be a bit cliched to say that James, Pittsburgh’s fifth round pick out of Penn State in the 2015 NFL Draft, has a chance to step up and prove himself in 2016, what with newly signed free agent tight end Ladarius Green beginning training camp on the PUP list after having offseason ankle surgery.

At the moment, there’s no set timetable for Green to return to action. Not great news for a Steelers’ offense that certainly will be without receiver Martavis Bryant for a year and might be without running back Le’Veon Bell for a month.

But for James, there’s definitely an opportunity to steal some playing time, especially in the preseason, which wasn’t so great to him in his rookie year—at least the Hall of Fame Game on August 9, 2015.

James dropped a touchdown pass and also fumbled in Pittsburgh’s 14-3 loss to the Vikings. James’ first preseason game was so bad, it warranted a mention from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in the postgame press-conference. For a fifth round pick, when your boss is talking about you after your first game, if it’s not complimentary.......Yikes.

Not the best way to begin your NFL career.

But James managed to make the final cut out of training camp and even caught eight passes for 56 yards and a touchdown during the regular season (he even threw in a two-point conversion for good luck).

Not great numbers, but playing behind the beloved Heath Miller and veteran Matt Spaeth, targets weren’t going to be plentiful for the rookie (even if his production was four-times better than Spaeth, who only caught two passes in 2015).

Following Pittsburgh’s loss to the Broncos in the divisional round of the playoffs, Miller retired after 11 glorious years. For James, maybe he saw a chance to elevate himself to the top of the depth chart in his second season. Unfortunately for him, the Steelers signed Green not even a month later with a plan in mind for him to not only take Miller’s starting spot, but make the tight end position more explosive and dynamic.

It’s impossible to say what was going through James’ mind at that time, but he evidently didn’t lack motivation to take that all-important first-to-second year leap.

James, who reported to his first training camp filling out his 6-7 frame with roughly 270 pounds, is said to be noticeably lighter this year (roughly 20 pounds lighter). And, as he told in an article at the outset of training camp, he feels he can play a bigger role in Todd Haley’s offense than just that of a blocking tight end: “I think I can be a tight end, all around pro.”

That remains to be seen, of course, but the veteran Spaeth was released not long ago, and with Miller retired and Green out indefinitely, that leaves a huge void for James to fill, starting this Friday night in the team’s first preseason match-up against the Lions at Heinz Field.

Does James have what it takes to play a more dynamic role in the Steelers’ offense?

We’ll have to wait and see, but back to James’ rookie season. Here’s another quote courtesy of PennLive, this time from Tomlin, as he talked about James’ improvements last December: “More than anything, I like his overall game day demeanor. He’s a good guy and clean guy to communicate with. It’s obvious the stage is not too big for him.”

Is the stage too big for James to screw up an opportunity to impress while he assumes what appears to be a temporary role as the number one tight end on the depth chart?

Time will tell, but I certainly wouldn’t bet against The Outlaw.