This is a tight end with the perfect name for the way he plays – much like the legendary outlaw by the same name, this Nittany Lion is “one tough hombre” who received the nickname of “The Freak” when the former coaching staff was recruiting the local product to play for the team. While that staff failed to utilize his hidden talents during their time in charge, the new staff immediately recognized that Jesse James has the size, skill set and football IQ of a player that presents a mismatch on every snap when he lines up.
The new staff under head coach James Franklin decided that James would be much more involved in the passing game that ever before, in 2014. The team already boasted blue chip tight end recruits in Adam Breneman, Kyle Carter and Brent Wilkerson, but the Lions’ reserves managed only eighteen catches and two touchdowns last season.
James almost equaled his production from his first two seasons (40 catches), as he hauled in 38-of-60 targeted throws for 396 yards and three touchdowns before opting to leave the school when he declared for the 2015 draft. His eleven touchdowns in three seasons set the school career-record for tight ends, as his 78 receptions for 1,005 yards.
To hear professional scouts talk, you can understand why James is becoming one of the highest-rising players in the nation. During preseason campus drills before the 2014 season, those in attendance saw the tight end walk into the weight room and perform 28 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press, also producing a 365-pound power clean and a 500-pound dead lift.
After seeing James dominate in that strength competition, he proved to talent evaluators that he has all the ability to become the standout blocker that quite a few NFL teams desperately need at tight end. That was exactly what former Penn State defensive coordinator and Nittany Lions recruiter Tom Bradley saw when he first set eyes on this once 210-pound product from the local Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League.
With James Franklin taking over the helm at Penn State, most feared that he would utilize the strong ground game approach he had developed at Vanderbilt. After seeing James simply destroy his secondary in practices, the coaches went back to the “drawing board” to devise ways for getting the ball to their tight end in 2014. He would finish third on the team, pulling down 38-of-60 passes targeted to him, gaining 396 yards in the process, scoring three times while posting 81 knockdowns and ten touchdown-resulting blocks.
A true junior, James leaves Penn State after he served as director of marketing for Penn State's Uplifting Athletes chapter, helping the Nittany Lions raise a record total of $151,990 during 2013-14 for the Kidney Cancer Association to push the team's total past one million dollars over the eleven years of the Penn State Lift For Life. He is currently working with the staff from the Morgan Academic Support Center for Student-Athletes to develop a plan to complete his degree in kinesiology.
James has the size that makes him an imposing presence when he challenges a deep secondary. He is taller than most tight ends and has impression explosion and burst to get to the top of the route. He also has the frame that can add more bulk without it affecting his quickness. He has outstanding strength, as linebackers struggle considerably and have little success when attempting to press him or take him off his route.
James has a nice “bag of tricks,” with his head and shoulder fakes to sell the route and escape from second level defenders in man coverage, along with the functional burst to race up the seam. He gets most of his separation from precise cuts, but also knows how to use his hands to push off to separate vs. tight coverage.
You will rarely hear James’ name bandied about by the media, but in scouting circles, many analysts feel that he could be on the verge of emerging. He has offensive lineman-like size and is regarded as one of the most punishing blockers in college at his position. He also made great strides as a receiver this season, ranking third on the team with 38 receptions. His long reach lets him adjust to off-target throws, showing ease of movement extending to catch away from the body.
The former Nittany Lion shows a good burst and balance out of his cuts, but is not the type that will win too many long distance foot races. He is more suited for being a big target in the short area, as he has the large hands and big body to secure the ball and shield it from defenders. He also knows how to use his frame to sink his pads and come up with the underneath throws.
James is tough to bring down in isolated coverage due to his size and strength. He reminds experts of former Raiders standout, Dave Casper and Giants great Mark Bavaro for his drive-through-the-pack mentality. He runs hard and gets most of his yardage after contact. He just doesn’t appear to have any elusiveness, but is a load to bring down in one-on-one situations. With the Bavaro comparisons, the Giants would be well-advised to make several trips to State College and see if he might be the perfect fit to solve their tight end needs.
Jesse James NFL Scouting Combine measurables
6-7/261 (4.83 forty)
33-inch arm length
9 3/8-inch hands
37.5-inch vertical jump
121-inch broad jump
4.50 20 yard shuttle
12.15 60 yard shuttle
Dave-Te’ Thomas is a sports writer, talent evaluator and scouting personnel consultant for a majority of teams in the National Football League. Thomas runs a scouting information service called NFL Scouting Services and produces THE NFL Draft Report, a publication provided by league headquarters to the media in preparation for the NFL Draft.
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