There are a few players fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers don't want to imagine life without. Fan favorite Heath Miller would certainly fall into such a category, and the thought of an heir apparent for the man who causes the entire crowd to yell "HEEEEEATH" with every reception may cause some sadness deep down in every black and gold gut.
Nonetheless, the Steelers' 5th round draft pick Jesse James from Penn State showed tremendous improvement throughout his rookie season in many aspects. Coming out of college, the knack on James was an above average set of hands, with below average blocking capabilities. However, due to injuries to both Matt Spaeth and Heath Miller in 2015, James showed he is improving in many aspects of his game.
James' statistics don't jump off the page, but his 8 receptions on 11 targets and lone touchdown in the regular season and his 22-yard catch and run against the Denver Broncos in the Divisional round of the AFC Playoffs were signs of a progression in James' game which has fans and the organization hopeful for the future.
Matt Spaeth still has one more year left on his current contract, and Miller is entering the latter years of his career, which opens the door for James to have an increased role within the Steelers' organization moving forward. With James having an increased understanding of the offensive system, his role should be much greater in 2016 and beyond.
What can fans expect from the 6-foot 7-inch tight end next season? With the Steelers knack for running two tight end offensive sets, it would seem likely James would flank Miller as the teams duo at the tight end position. James still has to improve on his inline blocking, but after seeing his progress through one season, it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility for such a task to be achieved in an offseason. Another aspect of James' game which might have gone unnoticed was his route running and pass catching ability. Jones' 8 receptions came on 11 targets, but his 22-yard catch in the playoffs was a beautiful route and catch which showcased how James is able to stretch the field vertically down the seam to exploit matchups against slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs.
The Steelers will likely still want to add another tight end via free agency or the draft, but fans should have a sense of comfort over the fact James is a large target with plenty of upside just getting comfortable in the NFL and the Steelers' system.