For the first eight games of his rookie season, tight end Jesse James was a spectator, inactive week after week as the fifth-round draft pick became acclimated to the offense, learned the ropes and continually developed.
Many athletes might have let the frustration of not playing get to them, but not James. He just worked harder in practice, studied his playbook, and did everything he could to get to the point where the coaches saw he was ready to play.
Phase Two of the Steelers offseason workout program is underway.
"I could have played, but it wouldn't have been the best performance," said James. "Whenever you go out there during the regular season you've got to put your best stuff out. You can't have areas of weakness that people can go after. It was good for me.
"I was able to learn from Matt (Spaeth) and Heath (Miller) and see how they play on Sundays. You can see if you watch my film from the preseason to the regular season how I changed as a player."
James finally got his break, playing Week 9 against the Oakland Raiders when Spaeth was inactive with a knee injury. In his first NFL game, James had two receptions for 13 yards and scored his first NFL touchdown on a four-yard grab. From that game on he saw the growth and the manner in which he said he 'changed as a player.'
"My mentality was a little bit different," said James. "I finished better. I had better overall effort throughout and I think that was a huge area of my game that helped me play better. I was moving a lot better, I was flying around.
"You could tell I was having a lot more fun playing the game, not stressing out about not really knowing exactly how to do everything. My confidence was way better. Confidence is a huge part."
It wasn't just his confidence, either. As a rookie he had to earn the confidence of his teammates and coaches, something that takes time to develop.
"You definitely you have to earn their trust," said James. "It's a process in a lot of ways. It's hard to totally gain someone's trust until you get snaps in a game. When I finally got mine I was able to go out and execute and help the team's chances of winning. That proved a lot to the guys on the team and the coaching staff. They gained trust in me and it meant a lot to me to keep going out there."
What else helped him was typical rookie evolution. One of the things rookies tend to do early on is overthink everything. When they are on the field they are thinking instead of reacting. But once he got to the point where he was comfortable, things changed.
"As the season goes on you just start playing ball," said James. "It's just the same thing you've been doing your whole life instead of trying to learn things and worrying about messing up. You're just doing what you've done your whole life and just having fun doing it."
Now, though, James knows it's time to take the next step. Miller retired, the team signed tight end Ladarius Green, and in year two, more is going to be expected of James.
That is why he has been a regular during the Steelers' offseason program, working on every aspect he can. And plans to continue along that same path.
"I grew a lot and it was a fun process," said James. "There is a lot you learn. You're playing against the best people every day in practice, every day on the field, and it carries into Sundays too. I think that's probably the biggest thing everyone's just trying to adjust to.
"As a football player I grew in more ways than I thought was possible within just one year. But I feel good about it. I feel good about where I am now and I think I will keep getting better this offseason."