Jesse James and T.J. Hockenson paved different paths to the NFL.
James, the fifth-year veteran out of Penn State, was a fifth-round pick by the Steelers in 2015. He was brought along slowly by Pittsburgh, and didn’t see his first regular-season action until midseason his rookie year.
Hockenson, the No. 8 overall pick by the Lions in last month’s NFL Draft, is likely to make an immediate impact this fall.
James learned early on in his NFL career that latching onto veterans and asking for help is the best way to succeed as a rookie. He had vets like Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth to show him the ropes, which he says was invaluable to his development as a young player.
“I came into the league and I was drafted when I was 20 years old,” James said. “A young kid still.”
James was told at the time by Steelers GM Kevin Colbert that he probably left college a little too early. The Steelers implemented a plan to develop him and work him into the lineup at a slow pace. Over the first half of his rookie season, James said the tutelage of Miller and Spaeth was instrumental in him getting on the field.
“Being able to play with Heath (Miller), I grew a ton,” James said. “Heath and Matt Spaeth, they were really two older guys that really took me under their wing, taught me a lot about football. Taught me how to do it the right way, how to stay healthy, how to treat your body in the offseason and how to do things the right way.”
It’s a lesson James plans to pay forward to the young Hockenson.
While Hockenson is expected to contribute right away for the Lions as their first-round pick, he still has a lot to learn.
James has logged 56 games (36 starts) in four seasons and has a good grasp on what the NFL is about and what it takes to play the tight end position at this level.
James plans to do what he can to help Hockenson along. He knows that doing so will help them reach the kind of success the Lions are expecting from them.
“It’s early for him,” James said of Hockenson. “He’s adjusting. Rookie year is a grind. You have a lot going on and a lot to learn. It’s just a different ball game.
“I came from the Big Ten, just like him, it’s a different ball game when you get to this level. So, just help him along that way. There’s going to be countless things I’m going to be able to help share with him, different game plan type things. We’re going to have a long season together. We’re going to be working a lot (together) and just helping each other improve and that’s how it is.”
The tight end position might be the second most difficult for rookies to learn on the offensive side of the ball next to playing quarterback. It’s essentially learning three positions, which includes all the blocking schemes and passing concepts. There’s a reason we don’t see rookie tight ends tear up the league too often.
The defenses here are different than Hockenson is used to seeing in the Big Ten, which James describes as “pretty basic “ with a lot of Cover 4. In the NFL, it’s a different scheme every week. The blocking is different, it’s a more complex game on the receiving side, and the athletes are all much better.
“They’ve brought me in. They’ve helped me a lot through this entire process,” Hockenson said of the veteran tight ends, which also includes Logan Thomas, Michael Roberts and Jerome Cunningham. “They’ve really taken me under their wing. They’re good people. You can tell they’re just trying to teach you the offense.”
It will be an adjustment for Hockenson, but the good thing for him is he’ll have guys like James in his corner, someone who knows the value of having veterans willing to help a young player out.