James' role with Steelers could expand after Miller retirement

| Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, 8:57 p.m.

Jesse James and Heath Miller are similar in many ways — that is if you ignore the 584 receptions and 44 touchdowns that separate them.

Other than that — and maybe the “Heeeeath” chant — the two Steelers tight ends might be a spot-on match on how they carry themselves and approach the game. That was by design for James, who grew up 15 miles south of Heinz Field in Glassport and followed Miller's career since James was a youngster at South Allegheny.

“I followed his lead in a lot of ways,” James said. “Even through college I wasn't a big interview guy and ended up being very similar in the way we handle ourselves. I tried to model myself after him the best that I could, and really, there isn't a better guy you can model yourself after.”

Miller on Friday retired as the Steelers' most decorated tight end with 592 receptions, 6,569 yards and 45 touchdowns, leaving a gaping hole at a position that he held for more than a decade.

James joins veteran blocking specialist Matt Spaeth and intriguing practice squad player Xavier Grimble as the only tight ends on the roster. Will Johnson, who has split time between fullback and tight end, is a free agent, and the Steelers released 2014 seventh-round pick Rob Blanchflower last week.

While the Steelers have free agency and the draft to offset Miller's loss, James is the player who will get that first opportunity.

“For me, it is next man up,” James said. “I have been with the team for a year now, and I feel really comfortable with everything. I know the team has confidence in me to get the job done. It is my time to step up and handle business and make sure they are comfortable with me be able to fill in and take over.”

The Steelers drafted James in the fifth round last year out of Penn State. Even though James' production wasn't eye-popping during three years with the Nittany Lions, the Steelers felt he wasn't used properly in college to showcase his skill set.

James struggled early on adapting to the professional level, and that was evident in his first professional game against the Minnesota Vikings in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. James dropped a touchdown pass and one that led to an interception. He also had two costly penalties in the game.

Still, the Steelers kept him on the 53-man roster. It wasn't until nine weeks into the season that James was game-day active.

“I don't think it was any one part of the game that was the toughest for me,” James said. “It was just putting it all together and becoming the player the Steelers saw me being. Coming in and getting in better shape and being able to run all day and finish plays blocking in the run game — it was a combination of a lot of things. The thing that I improved the most in was my conditioning and making sure that I am consistent.”

James played in the final 10 games, including the playoffs, and started against the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts. He finished his rookie season with eight receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown while logging 181 snaps, with the majority of them coming in a two-week span late in the season against the Seattle Seahawks and Colts.

James played 107 snaps in those games but only 54 the rest of the year, including 28 in the two playoff games.

“Having that year under my belt ... I was young coming into the season and didn't play much at the beginning, but to be able to play at the end helped me tremendously,” James said. “My development throughout the season never stopped getting better. I am prepared to go and get back to work soon.”

With Miller's retirement, the Steelers save $4 million off their already tight salary cap. They could use that money to bring in a veteran free agent. The top ones on the market are Lardarius Green (Chargers), Zach Miller (Bears), Jermaine Gresham (Cardinals), Jared Cook (Rams), Dwayne Allen (Colts) and Larry Donnell (Giants). Ben Watson (Saints) caught 74 passes last year despite being 35. Watson met with the Steelers during training camp a few years ago.

The Steelers could address the position early in the draft with Arkansas' Hunter Henry (projected in the first round) or stay with what they have, which includes Grimble.

Grimble was cut by the Giants, 49ers and Patriots in a span of a season before being signing by the Steelers on Sept. 7. Grimble, who played college ball at USC, spent the entire season on the Steelers' practice squad.

“I don't know what is going to happen,” James said. “Our general manager, Kevin Colbert, is surely figuring that out.”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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