Mike James has been favorably compared to Earnest Graham almost since the moment the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted him in the sixth round last April, and that's no small appraisal for the folks at One Buccaneer Place.
For James, a merely statistical comparison would be flattering enough. Despite being an undrafted free agent, Graham played in 98 NFL games with 35 starts, ran for more than 2,000 yards, caught passes for another 900 yards and also consistently excelled on special teams. But the similarities – or, at this point, potential similarities, given that James is still trying to get his NFL career started – go beyond the numbers. The sixth-round pick out of the University of Miami is versatile, cerebral, team-oriented, talented and ready to take on any job that will help the team. That's a pretty spot-on retroactive scouting report for the man they called "Insurance" Graham.
The reason the James-Graham comparison comes immediately to mind at this point in mid-August is that Graham also had a habit of putting up big preseason numbers before he finally got his chance to run the ball in the regular season. That's something James is doing, too. Through two games, he leads the team with 96 yards on 21 carries (4.6 yards per run) and he is also tied for second with four catches. His 103 combined yards from scrimmage at New England last week are the most by an NFL player so far this preseason in a single game.
Was James' big game against the Patriots all the Buccaneers needed to see to save him a spot on the 53-man roster. It's a decent bet, but James isn't looking at it that way.
"I just always say, 'With this game, you never know,'" said the mature-beyond-his-years rookie. "No matter what you think and no matter how you approach it, it's never enough. When you think it's good, it needs to be better. When you think it's bad, it needs to be better. And when you think it's great, it needs to be better. It's never enough."
He knows, however, that it was a good performance against the Patriots, and in more ways than the raw numbers indicate. James also held his own when asked to pass-block, which is absolutely critical for a player who may end up in the role of third-down back.
"I had a few pass-block [plays], and it was very important," he said. "I did my job, made sure they didn't get to the quarterback, put a good look on the guys and I'll try to continue that on to this week."
James is taking an approaching to making the Bucs' roster as a rookie that removes all the complications from the process. Learn the playbook, understand your job, execute to the best of your abilities when called upon. Fortunately, he's done what he needs to do from an academic standpoint to let his talents take over for the next two preseason games.
"I'm pretty comfortable," he said. "I've got everything I need to know. It's just going out there and executing now."
His next opportunity will come in a familiar place, as the former Hurricane returns to Miami to take on the Dolphins with the rest of his teammates on Saturday night. He expects to have about a dozen friends and family members in the stands on what would seem to be a pretty important game for him and the rest of the Bucs' reserve tailbacks.
Doug Martin is the clear starter after a magical rookie season, but Tampa Bay needs to sort out the rest of the backfield from among the likes of James, Brian Leonard, Peyton Hillis and Michael Smith. Leonard had a strong preseason opener against Baltimore, and while James was the offensive star in New England, Hillis did well in that ballgame as well. Smith is battling a foot injury and may not get an opportunity to play Saturday, but the other three tailbacks are almost sure to get some competitive action.
Again, however, James is approaching that competition in a simple and straightforward manner.
"Any game that's the next game – which is this game – is going to be critical," he said. "I'm just looking to have a solid day and to show the coaches what I can do and execute all my assignments."
That straightforward thinking also applies to the rookie's approach to running the ball. As his head coach, Greg Schiano, has pointed out on several occasions, James has a one-cut-and-get-upfield style that rarely results in negative plays.
"It's just a style I have," he said. "I'm always aware of down and distance and what's going on on the field. I definitely don't want to put the offense in a bad position. That's my job, not to take any losses. My job is to get as many yards as possible and put the offense in the best position possible, so that's what I'm trying to do."
Knowing what he needs to do, James heads into Saturday's important game with peace of mind.
"I'm just going to pray about it, work hard at it, put a solid day together and leave everything else up to God," he said.