Just a week ahead of training camp, the Jets made a signing, bringing in former Vikings and Eagles cornerback Craig James. Today, we break down James in detail.
The 26-year old James is listed at 5’10” and 195 pounds and has played in 21 NFL games, starting one. He has 17 tackles, a fumble recovery and a pass defensed in his career so far.
James was a three-star prospect out of high school, playing mostly as a defensive back during a career that saw him intercept eight passes and score 16 total touchdowns.
He began his college career at Minnesota where he was a reserve defensive back and also returned punts. However, after a season-ending injury in his sophomore year, he opted to transfer to Southern Illinois.
In his junior year with the Salukis, James was named to the Missouri Valley Conference all-newcomer team after intercepting three passes. He then intercepted two more and had a career high 37 tackles in his senior season.
James was undrafted in 2018 and unable to find a team that would sign him, so he headed to Vikings rookie camp on a tryout basis and earned a contract and an invite to training camp.
After being released in final cuts, James signed to the Vikings’ practice squad in October and was activated late in the season to play in three games on special teams. However, he was released in final cuts again after the following year’s camp.
This time the Eagles signed him to their practice squad, activating him a couple of times early in the year. He ended up being a special teams mainstay as he played in 14 games and registered nine special teams tackles. He also saw some brief action on defense, with one start.
Having signed an extention, injuries were again an issue for James in 2020 as he was placed on injured reserve twice. He ended up with two tackles and a fumble recovery in four games and then did not play in 2021 as he spent the year on the practice squad.
The Eagles signed James to a futures deal after the 2021 season, but released him in July because of their secondary depth.
Now let’s take a look at what James brings to the table, divided into categories.
James, who ran track in high school, is a pretty good athlete who has adequate size, but lacks length.. Although he missed his pro day workout due to injury, he had earlier run a 40-yard dash in 4.50 at Northwestern’s pro day.
James has primary played as an outside cornerback at the college and pro level. However, he did see some preseason action in the slot with the Vikings and also played some reps on the inside in college with Minnesota. He also played on offense in high school.
James has held his own in coverage during regular season and preseason action as he hasn’t given up a single play of 15 yards or longer. He did give up this touchdown though, as Nate Diggs got a step on him with a quick inside move:
His balance seems pretty good and he moves well, but he can take some false steps from time to time. His closing and recovery speed is good and he shows an impressive ability to break on the ball.
In college, James didn’t get beaten over the top very often, although at times he arguably played too far off his man.
James has shown a good ability to make plays on the ball with 23 passes defensed during his two years as a full-time player with the Salukis.
He made a huge impact on just his third ever defensive snap in regular season action with his deflection creating a game-clinching turnover.
He’s had a couple more pass break-ups in preseason action, including this one where he recovered well to disrupt at the sideline.
James had five interceptions in college and eight in high school but has yet to register one in regular season or preseason action at the NFL level.
James has good closing speed and range in pursuit. He also breaks down well in space, especially on special teams.
He forced three fumbles in his high school career and one in college. He hasn’t had many issues with missed tackles, but will allow his man to get away from him sometimes.
As he’s mostly played on the outside, James doesn’t get many chances to contribute in run support, but has displayed a willingness to do so and good discipline on the outside.
He had just one tackle for loss in his college career.
James is a scrappy player who will look to jam or disrupt players on their routes and uses his hands a lot at the catch-point. He needs to be careful not to get too handsy, otherwise he could be too penalty-prone at the NFL level.
He had this defensive holding penalty against the Jets in his lone regular season start, as he lost leverage on the jam.
James has a tendency to go low for a hit to cut a ball carrier down from time to time, but isn’t really known as a big hitter.
James has hardly ever been used as a blitzer at the NFL or college level, although he recorded one sack in high school. He recorded one pressure in his college career.
Special teams play is James’ calling card and likely the main reason the Jets have added him to their roster ahead of camp. He has played extensively on every main special teams unit in a variety of roles.
As noted, he had nine special teams tackles in 14 games in 2019 as he covered kickoffs and was a primary gunner on punts.
He also has some return game experience, mainly on punts. He averaged 8.7 yards per return in 2014 with the Golden Gophers and 8.5 yards per return in 2017 with the Salukis, although he had 14 returns for minus-10 yards in the two intervening years. At the NFL level he had a 22-yard kickoff return, a fair catch on a punt and this nice return in preseason action.
James has also served as a blocker on kickoff returns, and as a vice on punts. He recovered a muff by his teammate within the latter role, albeit after having been beaten by the gunner.
James seems capable of sitting back in zone coverage and reacting to the quarterback to limit yardage and keep things in front of him. There were no obvious blown coverages in his film and a few plays where he made some good reads.
James’ story is a familiar one, which echoes a few of the other players the Jets have signed this offseason. His determination to make it to the NFL against all odds is doubtless something that helped encourage the Jets to bring him in to compete for a role.
He has said he came into the league with a chip on his shoulder after nobody even signed him as an undrafted free agent and he arrived at rookie camp to try out for a contract where nobody knew his name on day one, but he made sure they did by the last day.
His on-field discipline is good, with just two penalties in regular season or preseason action at the NFL level. One of these was an unsportsmanlike penalty for a late hit, but it was a mistake because he didn’t see a fair catch signal rather than a dirty play.
Despite his relative lack of experience, James was named as a special teams co-captain for the Eagles in 2020.
James has had some injury issues over the years. He broke his leg in his sophomore year in college and was placed on injured reserve on two separate occasions with hamstring and shoulder issues in 2019.
He also was sidelined for one week due to Covid-19 protocols in 2020 and missed his pro day with another hamstring problem.
While James is probably going to compete for a special teams role, he has a chance to compete for a reserve role on the outside too. He has played in both man and zone coverages in the past and sometimes in press coverage looks.
Although James didn’t play in 2021, the Eagles were one of the most zone-heavy coverage teams in the NFL so he would be well-versed in those aspects.
The Jets already have a core special teamer in Justin Hardee who doesn’t contribute on defense, so if James is going to make the team in addition to Hardee, he probably needs to beat out guys like Rachad Wildgoose and Isaiah Dunn.
James probably brings more to the table than Hardee in terms of his ability to contribute on defense, but he’s not on the same level as a special teamer, despite having good potential there. It’s therefore unlikely he would be given a chance to compete for Hardee’s spot, but he could be a useful backup in case Hardee gets injured or something.
If he does make the roster, it’s likely James would be active most Sundays. However, if not, there’s a good chance they’ll keep him on the practice squad and activate him when they need special teams reinforcements.