LATROBE, Pa. (AP) Jesse James has prepared the last two offseasons to be the starting tight end for the Pittsburgh Steelers even as the team explored its options following Heath Miller's unexpected retirement in 2015.
Pittsburgh splurged in free agency a year ago, signing Ladarius Green to a four-year deal. It lasted only one. When the Steelers released Green in the spring, James found himself in the spot he believed he could be in all along: a starter on one of the NFL's most potent offenses.
''I knew I had a chance to be the guy last year. Things didn't work out for Ladarius early in the season, so I had that opportunity,'' James said. ''This summer, the Steelers really gave me a chance to come into that role, and now that's the expectation, so that's what I'm going to do.''
While Green struggled to stay healthy in his only season in Pittsburgh, James flourished. He appeared in all 19 games last season for the AFC North champions, finishing with 39 receptions for 338 yards and three touchdowns. Heady territory for a kid who grew up in suburban Pittsburgh. Yet he hardly thinks he's arrived.
''I'll have to step it up and be more reliable and more prepared to help the team in every situation,'' James said. ''I feel great and obviously I'm in a better position than I was last year, mentally and physically. I feel better about where my game's at and what I need to do to be ready for the season.''
Green, who signed a four-year, $20 million contract in free agency, was placed on the physically unable to perform list in training camp and didn't appear in a game until November, the 10th week of the regular season against Dallas. He played in five games before a season-ending concussion in week 14. The Steelers released Green after he failed his physical in May.
The team didn't draft or sign another tight end, allowing James to take over the starting role.
''It shows a lot that the coaching staff didn't go out and get somebody in free agency,'' James said. ''They must've liked what they saw in those 10 games we didn't have Ladarius. We have a young group, so they know what to expect from us and they know we're going to grow.''
James played high school football at nearby South Allegheny and starred in college at Penn State. He grew up watching Miller and the Steelers.
James, a fifth-round draft pick in 2015, spent a year under Miller's tutelage and now he leads a group that includes evolving pass-catcher Xavier Grimble and veteran blocking specialist David Johnson.
The Steelers added offensive lineman Chris Hubbard to the tight end group last season in an effort to boost the run game and create space for All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell.
The plan helped carry the Steelers to the AFC Championship game.
Pittsburgh reeled off nine straight wins and averaged 144 rushing yards per game, up from an average of 82 yards for the first 10 games.
Expect to see more of the same in 2017 from James and the Steelers' tight ends.
''I see Jesse getting better each year because that's the type of player he is,'' Grimble said. ''He's always working hard and he's really good with the offense, especially with another year under his belt. I would expect nothing less than a breakout season from him.''
NOTES: Steelers' third-round pick RB James Conner practiced in pads for the first time in nine days, but did not take any contact. . Suspended wide receiver Martavis Bryant didn't practice Tuesday as he is still in the process of being fully reinstated by the league. . LT Alejandro Villanueva is being evaluated for a possible concussion.
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