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.

Backyard Brawl NFL Draft prospects review: Pitt wins but WVU players shine

College football fans and NFL draft enthusiasts were treated to the return of one of its classic rivalry games this week, as Pittsburgh and West Virginia renewed their famous Backyard Brawl after a decade hiatus. The return was exciting enough that it became the highest-attended Pittsburgh sporting event of all time with over 70,000 fans in attendance.

The game certainly didn’t disappoint, with multiple lead changes and a dramatic finish. West Virginia came up just short (quite literally) in the final seconds to give Pitt the victory, with Mountaineers QB JT Daniels unable to convert on a long fourth down to extend the game. Here is hoping they will play again sooner despite all of the changes to college football happening fast.

I came into the Backyard Brawl with a NFL draft few prospects in mind I was excited to see, but my attention ended up going to a few unexpected players who are now on my radar. Let’s start by taking a look at two players who aren’t draft-eligible, but are guys to watch for the future.

Future NFL Draft Prospects Donaldson and Hammond, Jr Shine in Backyard Brawl

Coming into the game I expected last year’s leading rusher for Pitt, junior RB Israel Abinikanda, to lead the rushing attack for the Panthers. Instead, sophomore RB Rodney Hammond Jr got the bulk of the carries with 16 rushes for 74 yards and two scores.

That stat line isn’t anything special in college football, but the burst and quickness he showed to go along with great toughness between the tackles was impressive to watch. He also had a 49-yard reception that showed off his speed in the open field. Definitely a player I will be keeping an eye on.

West Virginia’s leading rusher on the day also was a surprise, but for a completely different reason. Freshman tight end/running back CJ Donaldson was absolutely electric in his college debut, finishing with seven carries for 125 yards and a TD. He even blocked a punt that led to his only score of the day on a bruising five-yard run.

Listed at 6’2 and 240 pounds, he showed impressive burst and straight-line speed for such a big guy. He used that size to his advantage as well, bouncing off tacklers on his only touchdown of the day. It was a small sample size and he is only a freshman, but don’t be surprised if he is a popular name in NFL draft circles very soon.

Pitt’s 2023 NFL Draft Prospects Fail to Impress in Backyard Brawl

I was excited to watch NFL draft prospects like Habakkuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey along Pitt’s defensive line after their impressive 2021 seasons, but they failed to make a huge impact in the Backyard Brawl. Baldonado didn’t play as much as I expected, and his most notable play was probably his taunting penalty that got West Virginia off their own goal line.

Kancey already has question marks about his size (6’0, 280), and in this game, it showed up in the run game. He didn’t impact the passing game much either, as he struggled to get off blocks and pressure Daniels. I think both players will ultimately have good seasons, but this wasn’t the best start for either of them.

Kedon Slovis was another player I was curious about now that he moved on from USC. He burst onto the scene with an electric freshman season in 2019, and NFL draft buzz immediately followed. He has regressed every season since, however, failing to establish himself as an NFL-caliber talent.

The shoulder injury he suffered in 2021 seems to have sapped some of his arm talent as well — which wasn’t a huge strength of his to begin with. He played well overall in this game, showing poise and accuracy down the stretch. I doubt he will be a highly-touted NFL draft prospect ever again, but he is worth keeping an eye on.

West Virginia Prospects Shine Despite Loss

The two players I was focusing on going into the game, JT Daniels and Dante Stills, both played well, especially Stills. However, it was a receiver who grabbed my attention early.

Bryce Ford-Wheaton isn’t an unknown player by any means. He was featured on Bruce Feldman’s popular list of freak athletes in college football for a reason. Standing over 6’3 and 225 pounds with surprising speed, he has always had immense potential. His numbers thus far have been lackluster, but the redshirt junior has never had a quarterback who could get him the football consistently.

Now with Daniels in the fold, Ford-Wheaton immediately made an impact with nine grabs for 97 yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, he also dropped an easy catch that was intercepted and returned for the game-winning TD, but nobody is perfect. He was still a big reason they were in the game. If he can avoid drop issues, he could be a name to remember.

Daniels had a good game in his own right, but his lack of elite arm talent is easy to see — just as it was with Slovis. After failing to win the starting job last season with Georgia, this was Daniels last chance to be a starting QB. I think he will be a good player for the Mountaineers, but his NFL prospects seem unlikely to materialize.

NFL Draft Prospect of the Game: Dante Stills

The final and maybe most impressive player I was watching for was Dante Stills. The interior defensive lineman has made a huge impact for the Mountaineers. He was excellent in 2021 for the West Virginia defense, racking up seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss.

At 6’4, 285 pounds, he is an excellent athlete with plenty of quickness and get-off to pressure the QB. What I was most intrigued by in this game, though, was seeing him line up on the edge on early downs, and then kicking inside on passing downs.

That versatility will be important with him being a bit light for an interior player, but his play strength didn’t seem like an issue this game. He finished with a sack and a half to go along with a forced fumble and five total tackles.

Steelers get Diontae Johnson contract done with two-year extension

Steelers agree to a new 2-year extension with top receiver Diontae Johnson.

Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson agreed to a two-year contract extension
Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The Steelers and wide receiver Diontae Johnson have agreed to a two-year contract extension worth $36.71 million, per Mike Garafolo. The deal comes after Johnson took the T.J Watt-style “hold in” approach so far this camp, working by himself while avoiding team practices.

The deal keeps Johnson under team control until 2024, where he can possibly try his hand at free agency. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to return on a new deal after that.

What this contract means for Diontae Johnson, Steelers

Getting Johnson to agree to a below-market deal even after other 2019 draft picks (D.K Metcalf, A.J Brown, Deebo Samuel just to name a few) all received $20+ million per season on their new deals is huge for new GM Omar Khan.

Johnson is far from a perfect player, but his impact for a QB room who is young and unproven cannot be understated. He has been the #1 target for the offense the past two seasons for a reason.

Johnson wins often and early against man coverage with elite quickness and route running savvy. That will be a must against teams trying to load the box to stop Najee Harris. He will also help the other receivers by pulling coverage away from them.

Johnson isn’t as complete a receiver or as dominant as some of his fellow 2019 draft picks, which is likely why he falls shy of their contract price tags. He has also had a few games in his career where he struggles to do anything right out of nowhere.

Overall, this deal makes a ton of sense for both sides. Johnson gets a hefty raise for the next few seasons while still being under 30 when the deal is up.

The Steelers meanwhile retain their top target from the past two seasons to help develop their new quarterbacks. He will especially help first-round pick Kenny Pickett adjust to the speed of the NFL by giving him somewhere to go with the ball early in plays. Hard not to be happy with this deal as a Steelers fan.

Steelers make Minkah Fitzpatrick highest-paid safety in NFL history

Minkah Fitzpatrick
Credit: Getty Images

Minkah Fitzpatrick was never going anywhere, but Steelers fans can breathe a sigh of relief now that their star safety has a new deal. It is a four-year, $73.6 million deal tying him to Pittsburgh for the next five seasons, making him the highest-paid safety in NFL history.

Fitzpatrick has been a force for the Steelers since being acquired from the Dolphins in 2019. He has forced 14 combined turnovers and bringing range not seen in the secondary since HOFer Troy Polamalu.

He was forced into a different role last season and his playmaking ability wasn’t featured as often. Despite that, he helped hold an injured defense together enough to earn the Steelers a wildcard spot.

Now with a healthier (and deeper) defense heading into 2022, Fitzpatrick will be able to return to being a true ball-hawking free safety. If the defense can return to 2019 form, Pittsburgh could have a legit shot at another playoff season.

What the Minkah Fitzpatrick deal could mean moving forward

Looking past the on-field ramifications, the timing of this deal was a bit surprising. The Steelers have always been known to play hard ball with even their best players. Even 2021 DPOY TJ Watt was barely signed prior to the season last year. As good as Minkah Fitzpatrick is, you would think it would have been the other way around.

This deal coming before training camp tells me that new GM Omar Khan may want to do things a bit differently. He may have been with the Steelers for 20 years, but he doesn’t want to just keep the status quo. Being more player-friendly with how contract talks go would be a welcome change in the modern NFL.

The Steelers are entering a new era, and Khan knows it. Adjusting how they do business, even just a little, is something that needs to happen. This deal for Minkah Fitzpatrick could be the first move that signals that shift. If so, it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving player.

The Steelers win-now mentality will be tested in stacked AFC

Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin
Photo Credit: Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Steelers are entering a new era of uncertainty, and the AFC will be harder to navigate than ever. How will they respond?

The Steelers haven’t felt the sting of a losing season since 2003. That doesn’t seem possible given the amount of parity the NFL experiences on a yearly basis. When you go from one Hall of Fame coach (Bill Cowher) to a potential one in Mike Tomlin, it should be no surprise.

Even with a broken-down version of Ben Roethlisberger and injuries to the vaunted defense, Pittsburgh still finished 9-7-1 and snuck into the postseason. They were no match for the mighty Kansas City Chiefs, but most teams aren’t. With Ben gone and GM Kevin Colbert entering his final draft, it should be time to focus on the future.

That isn’t what the Steelers do, however.

A team that rarely spends money in free agency spent over $70 million on outside free agents this off-season. Most of that was to fortify their offensive line, signing guard James Daniels and center Mason Cole. They addressed quarterback as well by signing Mitchell Trubisky to a two-year prove-it deal.

Those aren’t moves you make if you aren’t focused on being competitive in 2022. The Trubisky move could easily not work out, but I doubt he is worse than Ben last season. The defense, if healthy, has top-five potential. Najee Harris should have the chance to flourish with an improved offensive line. OC Matt Canada will have the freedom to truly show if he is the guy.

Under normal circumstances, I would be optimistic about the moves Pittsburgh has made. This off-season has been anything but normal, however.

The AFC goes nuclear as Steelers enter new era

First, it was Russell Wilson to the Broncos in the biggest trade in league history. Then, the Chargers went all in by securing the pieces on defense they desperately needed. Not wanting to be outdone, the Raiders traded for Packers star wide receiver Davantae Adams, reuniting with college teammate Derek Carr.

That was just what happened in the AFC West. The Dolphins secured major upgrades to their offensive line with deals for Connor Williams and Terron Armstead. They then followed it up with a massive trade for the Chiefs Tyreek Hill. The Bills signed Von Miller to a massive deal, then recently locked down Stefon Diggs for the future.

The Steelers were even outdone by the rest of their division, with the Browns becoming the team willing to gamble on quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Ravens brought in the to safety on the market in Marcus Williams. The Bengals signed much-needed help up front in guard Alex Cappa, center Ted Karras, and tackle La’el Collins.

There are even more moves I could talk about, but you get the picture. The AFC is shaping up to be an absolute gauntlet over the next few seasons. The Steelers are in real danger of falling far behind. Their win-now mentality is what has allowed them to always be in the mix, but even staying in the playoff hunt will be hard to ask of this team now. They seem to know that, which is why they are seemingly locked in on taking their quarterback of the future this year.

Should they be?

To QB, or not to QB

Everything the Steelers have done this draft process points to one goal: finding their next franchise quarterback. This quarterback class is widely considered to be mediocre, with very little consensus on who the top guy is. It seems like the Steelers are most interested in Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, but who their guy is doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether it’s the right time to be drafting a quarterback who you hope can be the next long-term starter.

Picking a QB in the first round is a big decision. So many teams have swung and missed at that position and set themselves back for years. The Steelers luckily haven’t had to make that decision in a very long time, and I believe they should continue that streak this year. They would be better off using this draft to fill out the roster and look towards 2023 to find their next franchise guy.

The best-case scenario for the Steelers this season is to remain competitive and use this year as a showcase for players like Mitch Trubisky, Chase Claypool, Alex Highsmith, and the offensive line as a whole. Find out who deserves to be here long term, give whatever rookies they draft some chances, and prepare to make a run at one of the top quarterbacks next draft.

The bottom line for the Steelers

I don’t see the Steelers sneaking into the playoffs like they did last year, but they have surprised me before. How they approach the draft will say a lot about how competitive they believe they can be. If they draft for need, it’s safe to assume they are hopeful for next season. If they take high-upside guys who may need some time to develop, it likely means they have an eye towards 2023 and beyond.

No matter what happens the rest of the off-season, Steelers fans should brace themselves. It’s hard to imagine, but they could be staring down their first losing season in nearly two decades. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but if it happens it may be for the best.