The NFL transition is notoriously difficult for tight ends, but Hockenson is one of the few prospects with potential to fill a three-down role immediately. Detroit certainly hopes the rookie can beat out James, who in March signed a four-year, $22.6 million contract with $10.5 million guaranteed (all in the first two seasons), per overthecap.com. Even if he does win the starting job, it's hard to see how James would warrant more than three or four targets per game in an offense that also needs to find looks for Hockenson, Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones (knee), Danny Amendola, Kerryon Johnson and Theo Riddick.
James said he doesn't think he'll be used in Detroit the same way he was used in Pittsburgh, Michael Rothstein of ESPN reports. "I feel like I'm going to be a key part of this offense," the tight end told Kyle Meinke of MLive.
In between a forgettable rookie campaign and last year's role reduction, James logged over 850 offensive snaps for Pittsburgh in both 2015 and 2016. Even at this peak of his tenure, James was little more than a complementary piece in an offense that ran through wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell. That shouldn't be the case anymore in Detroit, as James will slot in as the clear No. 1 tight end in an offense that doesn't have a bonafide superstar. However, before getting excited about James' sleeper appeal in fantasy formats, it should be noted the Lions targeted tight ends the second-fewest times in the NFL last season, and this year's draft class is absolutely loaded at tight end.
The 2015 fifth-rounder caught 30 passes for 423 yards and two TDs for the Steelers in 2018. James will now slot in as the Lions' top pass-catching tight end, an assignment that should lead to a degree of fantasy relevance for the 6-foot-7, 261-pounder this coming season.
James may want to survey the league after he played second fiddle to Vance McDonald in 2018, but it's hard to imagine many teams would view the 24-year-old as much more than a high-end No. 2 tight end. The 2015 fifth-round pick did add an element of occasional explosiveness to his game last season, piling up a career-best 423 yards despite seeing his fewest targets (39) since his rookie season. James produced 14.1 yards per catch to improve his career mark to a measly 9.9, but he didn't actually have much of an impact in the passing game after his 5-138-1 receiving line against Kansas City in Week 2. Given the poor alternatives at his position in the upcoming class of free agents, James could cash in with a surprisingly large contract if he finds one or two teams that view him as a starter. McDonald is under contract in Pittsburgh through 2021.
James was not targeted in Sunday's 16-13 win over Cincinnati.
For the second straight game, Ben Roethlisberger failed to throw a pass to James, whose playing time dwindled as the season progressed. He finishes 2018 with 30 catches (on 39 targets) for 423 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games and is a clear second choice at tight end behind Vance McDonald. James is an unrestricted free agent worth keeping an eye on this offseason.