Jesse James among 14 Steelers entering unrestricted free agency
The number of Pittsburgh Steelers players entering unrestricted free agency reads like a laundry list, ranging from a player who was on the field for every snap (Ramon Foster) to one who didn’t play a down (Le’Veon Bell).
In between, there are 12 players with varying degrees of experience and playing time on the verge of hitting the open market March 13.
“I took a look at the list the other day,” tight end Jesse James said last week after the Steelers wrapped up their season with a 9-6-1 record. “There are a lot of guys that played a lot of snaps for us. It will be interesting to see what happens.”
James is among the players ready to hit free agency after he concluded his fourth NFL season with the Steelers.
“Obviously, I don’t know exactly what is going to happen,” James said. “I have to see what is out there. I expect interest from other teams and for the Steelers to have some interest. We’ll see what happens.”
James indicated he will field offers — other teams can negotiate with his agent starting March 11 — before making any decision. The financial component won’t be the only measurable for James to consider. Playing time will be a factor. That’s something that might not be guaranteed with the Steelers, who view him as a backup to Vance McDonald.
“I love playing as much as possible,” James said. “I thought I had a good year, made the most of my opportunities. That’s all you can do.”
James played 50 percent of the offensive snaps in 2018, and he is coming off a season in which he caught 30 passes for 423 yards and two touchdowns. The yardage total set a career high as did his 14.1 average per reception. His targets, however, dropped from 63 in 2017 to 39.
James saw his playing time reduced in December when the Steelers started using five-receiver sets. He averaged 21 snaps over the final three games, which amounted to 30 percent of the offensive plays. James also wasn’t targeted inside the red zone in his final six games and had only five such targets the entire season.
If he remains with the Steelers, James would remain the backup to McDonald, who had 50 catches for 610 yards and four touchdowns despite playing only two more offensive snaps than James.
The Glassport native and Penn State product never has left the region and, even after four seasons with the Steelers, James is still 24 years old.
“Being young, I have a lot of football left to play,” he said. “I know if I could come back here, that would be optimal to me. I’m looking for the best situation.”
James is not alone. Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh is interested to see whether he fits into the Steelers plans next season after he moved ahead of former first-round pick Artie Burns early in the season and started 10 of 15 games.
Sensabaugh received a modest two-year, $2.6 million contract when he signed with the Steelers in 2017. That’s the equivalent of backup money, and that’s the role the Steelers envisioned for Sensabaugh when they signed him.
“I would want to (come back), but that still remains to be seen,” Sensabaugh said. “We’ll see.”
When Sensabaugh moved ahead of Burns in Week 3 against Tampa Bay, the Steelers used a rotation at the cornerback spot. By midseason, Sensabaugh earned the job for good and rarely left the playing field. He finished with 45 tackles, six passes defensed and a forced fumble while playing opposite shutdown corner Joe Haden.
“I think I proved myself this year, but I don’t know what that means going into next year,” Sensabaugh said. “I have to prove myself all over again. That’s how this business works. The guys that last in this league never get comfortable and are always cool with proving themselves year in and year out, no matter what you did the year before.”
Unlike James, Sensabaugh is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He turned 30 in 2018, and with seven years of experience, he could be chasing his final NFL contract.
“I feel like I became a better player here, a better man,” Sensabaugh said. “I hope it can continue. If it doesn’t, that’s how it goes sometimes.”
The other unrestricted free agents are linebacker L.J. Fort, punter Jordan Berry, defensive linemen Tyson Alualu, Daniel McCullers and L.T. Walton, linebacker Anthony Chickillo, wide receivers Justin Hunter and Darrius Heyward-Bey, safety Nat Berhe and running back Stevan Ridley.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .