We’re not talking about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett enough. Heading into his second season in the NFL, the Steelers’ young quarterback is poised to take a big leap forward as a player.
When people—whether it be fans or media pundits—talk about the talented young quarterbacks around the NFL, it’s usually the same names that come up. The Cincinnati Bengals have Joe Burrow, the Los Angeles Chargers have Justin Herbert, the Jacksonville Jaguars have Trevor Lawrence, and the Chicago Bears have Justin Fields. Though they’re not quite “young” guys anymore, you could also throw Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson into that conversation of (relatively) young talent at the sport’s most important position. Though rarely, if ever, do those same people bring up Pickett.
Now, there are a few potential reasons for this. First and foremost, Pickett was part of a 2022 quarterback class that was admittedly on the weaker side. The Pitt product was the only quarterback drafted in the first round, and there wasn’t another one taken until the middle of the third round.
Second, the overblown narrative about the size of Pickett’s hands seemed to be the dominant talking point before he was drafted, something that seemed to spur more conversation than his high level of play that final year at Pitt.
Third, Pickett didn’t have the most outstanding debut—at least, in the box score—as he threw three interceptions and zero touchdown passes (though he did rush for two). Those who watched the game, however, saw plenty of potential in Pickett and weren’t disheartened by his poor numbers in the box score.
Fourth, and finally, the Steelers just weren’t very good for the early part of the season, and many were quick to count them out as a result. But Pittsburgh quietly surged at the end of the season, winning seven of their last nine games, in no small part due to Pickett’s performances, to finish 9-8 and just miss the playoffs.
Like was the case with Pickett’s first game, the stats from his box score over his last eight starts—he missed one of those last nine games with a concussion—don’t pop. He completed fewer than 60% of his pass attempts over that span, threw just five touchdowns (albeit only one interception), and tallied an average of just 180 passing yards per game. Pickett threw for more than 200 yards in only two games down the stretch and never surpassed 300.
Taking a deeper dive into his film from those games as well as some of the more advanced statistics tells a different story. For one thing, Pickett was limiting the turnover issue that plagued the first half of his season, throwing just one interception in his last eight starts compared to the eight he had in his first five—including two three-interception games. For another, the ball placement and poise that helped him shine in college were starting to show up at the professional level. Pickett was hitting tighter windows and consistently putting the ball in a spot that allowed his receivers to make a play.
However, what was most impressive about Pickett’s late rookie season surge was his clutch factor. When the Steelers’ ground game led by running back Najee Harris wasn’t working or the team was down late in the game, the offense turned to Pickett to get it going. And almost every time, he would deliver.
Four of Pickett’s last six wins as a rookie were by one score, and the rookie finished his first NFL season with four game-winning drives and three fourth-quarter comebacks. Over the last five weeks of the season, no quarterback had a higher EPA/play in the fourth quarter than Pickett. And during the last seven weeks of the season, Pickett was second in the NFL with a big-time throw rate of 6.9% while also attempting an NFL-best 1.1% of turnover-worthy throws.
If not for Pickett’s clutch factor coming into play late in the season, the Steelers would have finished under a .500 winning percentage for the first time in head coach Mike Tomlin’s career. They wouldn’t have come anywhere close to making the playoffs either, but instead, the team was in contention as late as Week 18.
Going into the 2023 season, Pickett needs to keep up that low rate of turnover-worthy throws and strong ball placement while increasing his production across the board. As impressive as his tape was, especially down the stretch, Pickett needs to show off that he can do that over the course of a full season. At the same time, improvement in his raw numbers like completion rate, passing yards, and passing touchdowns will only further serve to help his case and give the Steelers a good shot at returning to the playoffs in the post-Roethlisberger era.
Based on his performance late last year, Pickett clearly has what it takes to be a pro quarterback. Now that he has something to build on to start his sophomore campaign, Pickett has a great chance to grow into the young star the Steelers believe he can become.
- Sep 29, 2023
- Sep 29, 2023