It’s finally time: Why Kenny Pickett is the perfect QB for the Steelers

New Steelers starting quarterback Kenny Pickett
Photo Credit: AP Photo

We all knew it was coming. No one knew the when, why, or how, but it was inevitable that the Steelers would turn to Kenny Pickett to be their new starting quarterback. After three and a half weeks of putrid offensive showings with Mitch Trubisky at QB, coach Mike Tomlin had seen enough.

Coming out of halftime against the Jets last Sunday, it was Kenny Pickett time. The 24-year-old rookie QB was finally getting his chance to show why the Steelers chose him to be their new franchise savior. Naturally, what did he do on his first throw? Throw an ill-advised deep ball that is intercepted by Jets safety Jordan Whitehead.

Pickett would go on to throw two more picks, one of which was a hail-mary (that traveled over 60 yards in the air!). He did, however, complete 10 of his 13 passes for 120 yards on the day, meaning he technically completed all of his passes — just some of them were to the Jets.

Obviously, throwing three interceptions in your first game isn’t ideal. But even with the mistakes, he provided a spark that the offense had lacked this season. He scored twice on the ground in impressive fashion, and generally looked the part as an NFL starting QB. There will be plenty of highs with a fair show of lows as he navigates his rookie season, but Kenny Pickett was made for this opportunity with the Steelers.

How a New Jersey-born kid made Pittsburgh his home

Kenny Pickett’s journey to the NFL was far from prophesized, as he was just a 3-star recruit and the 21st ranked prospect in the state of New Jersey in 2017. His family has a strong sports background: his father as an All-American linebacker at Shippensburg, and his mother and sister as excellent soccer players at Kutztown and East Stroudsburg respectively.

Those athletic genes certainly translated to the young quarterback, as he shined in high school at Ocean Township. Other schools were interested in him, but he wanted to continue playing with all the kids he had grown up with, according to a Trib Live report. That loyalty is a trait that would serve him well in the future.

As he became more successful as a high school QB, offers from multiple D1 schools began rolling in. He originally committed to the University of Temple in April of 2016, but after receiving new offers from Boston College and Pittsburgh, he reopened his recruitment. He would then visit Pitt on two occasions, with the final one leading to a commitment.

Pittsburgh’s head coach Pat Narduzzi was instrumental in getting Pickett to sign with the Panthers. From the previously mentioned Trib Live article by Jerry Dipaola: “There’s one reason (Pickett picked Pitt),” Ken Sr. said. “Coach Narduzzi. North Carolina, Missouri, Boston College, Iowa, their head coaches were not as involved as coach Narduzzi.”

The fact that Pickett prioritized the school whose head coach was the most involved says a lot about his mentality. He wants to be in a situation where the people at the top have their hands in every part of the process. His relationship with Narduzzi would lead them both to great success in the future.

Kenny Pickett arrives in Pittsburgh with a bang

When Kenny Pickett arrived on campus for his freshman year in 2017, not much was expected of him. He was behind two older quarterbacks in USC transfer Max Browne and sophomore Ben DiNucci. With neither QB ahead of him being a sure thing, Pickett was kept active for his freshman campaign.

Browne and DiNucci would split time for the first half of the season before Browne suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. That elevated Pickett to being the primary backup, where he would play sparingly until relieving DiNucci in a loss vs Virginia Tech. Prior to Pitt’s final game against the #2 ranked Miami Hurricanes, Pickett would be named the starter.

Asking a true freshman to lead your team against the #2 team in the country is quite a decision, but it’s one that would pay off for coach Narduzzi and the entire Pitt program. Pickett would have his first of many signature moments as a Panther, leading the team to a 24-14 upset over the Hurricanes.

Pickett finished with 193 yards and a score through the air. He also added 60 yards and two more scores on the ground. His biggest play came on fourth and five late in the fourth quarter as he faked play action and booted around the edge, out-running the defense and diving for a touchdown.

That performance would be the start of something special for Pickett and the Pitt program.

The 2018-2020 seasons: Kenny Pickett builds the foundation for the Panthers success

Kenny Pickett was the unquestioned starter heading into his sophomore season in 2018. Pittsburgh would finish the regular season 7-5 and earned a berth in the ACC Championship. The #2 Clemson Tigers crushed them 42-10, however. They would go on to lose their bowl game as well, falling to Stanford 14-13 in the Sun Bowl.

Pickett had a pedestrian 1,969 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and six picks. Despite the mediocre numbers, Pickett made improvements to his game that would show up in following seasons.

Pitt’s 2019 season would also end with a 7-5 regular season record, but Pickett improved greatly upon his sophomore season numbers. Pitt would go on to win their first bowl game under coach Pat Narduzzi, defeating Eastern Michigan 34-30. Pickett finished with 3,098 yards passing, 13 touchdowns and nine picks. The touchdown numbers kept many college football fans from viewing him as a top-flight QB, but Pickett was only getting better as he got more experience.

Disaster struck in 2020, with the entire world dealing with the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Pitt would only play 11 games, finishing 6-5 and opting out of a bowl game opportunity. Pickett missed two games due to injury, but still finished with 2,408 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine picks as a senior. It was his best season on a per-game basis, helping him generate NFL interest.

Despite the potential to jump to the NFL, he had the opportunity to return for another season using a Covid redshirt. The decision he ultimately made changed his life in more ways than he could have imagined.

The 2021 season: Kenny Pickett’s gamble pays off

Kenny Pickett had the biggest decision of his life to make following the 2020 season. Make the jump to the NFL as a likely mid-to-late round draft pick? Or return to Pitt to finish what he started? He opted to return to Pitt and try his hand at winning an ACC title, hopefully boosting his draft stock in the process. To say that that decision worked out for him would be a huge understatement.

Pickett led Pittsburgh to a 10-2 regular season record and his second berth in the ACC Championship. Pitt would go on to defeat Wake Forest 45-21 for their first ACC title. Pitt was ranked as high as #12 during the season. Pickett’s numbers exploded in his final season, finishing with 4,319 yards passing, 42 touchdowns and just seven picks.

His performance earned him a trip to New York as a Heisman finalist. He would finish third behind Alabama’s Bryce Young and Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson. Pickett chose to opt-out of the Peach Bowl where Pitt would fall to #11 Michigan State 31-21.

Pickett’s explosive 2021 season was unexpected to say the least. He more than doubled his career passing touchdown totals in just one season (39 to 81). What stood out most, though, was his accuracy and ability to make plays on the move, something the NFL covets more and more every season.

Quarterbacks who can create offense when the play breaks down or nobody gets open are worth their weight in gold. Pickett checking that box in his final season was huge for his pro potential.

The 2022 NFL Draft: The Kenny Pickett hands controversy

The NFL draft process was pretty uneventful for Pickett, playing well overall at the Senior Bowl. He also had very solid combine and pro day performances. The biggest question he faced had nothing to do with his play on the field. Not even the fact he was an older prospect (he turned 24 this past June). No, instead it was about his hand size.

The general consensus is that players with a hand size less than 9 inches may have trouble gripping the football. With Pickett playing quarterback, that is literally every play. Pickett clocked in at 8.5 inches at the combine and a slightly better 8.625 at his pro day.

The fact that he wears gloves on both hands didn’t help quell those concerns. Pickett has said that he just prefers the way it feels while throwing with a glove. Either way, it was ultimately nothing more than a slight knock on an otherwise good pre-draft process for Pickett.

Kenny Pickett soars to the top of a weak QB class

After being considered a mid-to-late round pick prior to 2021, he was now in position to be the first quarterback taken in the 2022 NFL draft class. Being labeled the most “pro-ready” QB is usually scout speak for being the safe, but lower ceiling option.

For Pickett, that label was accurate — but a bit misleading. While he was the most prepared for the jump to the NFL, he is a great athlete (9.55 RAS score) and showed plenty of playmaking ability in college.

While other passers like Liberty’s Malik Willis and Ole Miss’s Matt Corral had more perceived upside, they were much farther away from being ready to play. Teams with an immediate need at the position, like the Panthers and Steelers, were popular destinations for Pickett in mock drafts for a reason.

Ultimately, Pickett fell all the way to pick 20 in the first round. The Steelers were on the clock, and everyone knew they wanted a quarterback to replace the retired Ben Roethlisberger. Every QB was available to them, but they went with the kid they watched grow up next door for years.

Kenny Pickett will be asked to save Pittsburgh once again

I remember watching the draft at a friend’s place as I watched pick after pick go by with no quarterbacks being drafted. I knew that Pittsburgh wanted and needed a QB. They may have signed Mitch Trubisky in free agency, but he was a stop-gap option, at best.

I scouted the top QBs and came away unimpressed by what I saw, but liked the upside of Malik Willis. He was raw and had a long way to go. But I didn’t want the Steelers to settle for Kenny Pickett just because he was the most prepared to play.

Once the pick came through, I remember feeling a mix of disappointment and frustration. Why bother taking a guy who may never be a top QB even at his best? After the draft, I decided to go back and watch as much of Pickett as I could. The more I watched of him and the more I read about his story, the more the pick made sense.

The things that stand out about Kenny Pickett are all the things the Steelers have always stood for: toughness, playmaking, leadership, and football intelligence. Pickett may not be the most talented thrower of the football, but he uses every bit of arm talent he has to make the tough throws. It doesn’t look as pretty as guys like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert, but he gets the job done. Pickett has also become a very accurate passer, after struggling in that area early in his college career.

He may have peaked late in college, but I don’t think he is done growing as a player. He will never have the physical traits of Willis, but I think their ultimate upside is not that far apart. The bottom-line is this: Kenny Pickett is the perfect person to be the Steelers next franchise quarterback. Even if there may be more talented options available in the coming years, finding a player who is a better fit for Pittsburgh is unlikely.

Kenny Pickett looks to start with an upset once again

There will be bumps in the road of course. There will be games this year as Kenny Pickett gets comfortable that he may be the reason the Steelers lose. None of that will matter though if he becomes the QB that he and the coaching staff believes he can be. Ironically, his first career start this Sunday will be against the powerhouse Buffalo Bills. Starting his first career game against a heavily favored opponent is nothing new for Pickett.

That Miami game his freshman year must be running through his head as he prepares to try and upset the Bills. The Steelers are 14-point underdogs for the first time since the NFL merger in 1970 this Sunday. The betting line for his upset against Miami? You guessed it, right around that 14-point mark on most sports books. I’m not saying that the Steelers will defeat the Bills this week. If they did, though, it would be nothing new for Kenny Pickett.

At 1-3, a few surprise wins may not be enough to compete in a tough AFC North. Even so, winning this year was going to be hard either way. Steelers fans should just relax and try and enjoy watching Kenny Pickett grow. I know I will be.

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