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No QB Competition Necessary in Pittsburgh: Let Kenny Pickett Start From Day 1

Brent SobleskiJune 6, 2022

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The Pittsburgh Steelers can avoid the same old song and dance by allowing rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett to sashay his way into the starting lineup without any resistance from veteran Mitchell Trubisky.

Head coach Mike Tomlin can save his breath when considering the usage of any outdated cliches about how Pickett must earn the spot through a competition. Instead, the Steelers already said the quiet part out loud when it comes to how they view Pickett as a prospect. Spoiler alert: He's ready to play now.

"It's almost like he spent his rookie NFL season at the college level and really mastered it," former Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who selected Pickett with this year's 20th overall pick before retiring, said during an interview on Pittsburgh's 105.9 The X (h/t ESPN's Brooke Pryor). “Coach [Pat] Narduzzi and coach [Mark] Whipple provided him an opportunity to take that step in a pro schematic. And it is easier to project those types of players and those schematics to our level. It's not that the others that play in a more college-type offense can't do it—it's just more guesswork."

To be clear, all rookie quarterbacks face a learning curve. The difference lies in where they fall on the sliding scale of preparedness. A prospect such as Malik Willis, for example, fell much further behind on the developmental curve than most in his class. Whereas Pickett is seen as more mature in his readiness to take over an NFL offense.

Pickett is already 24 years old and spent the last three years with Whipple as his offensive coordinator, as Colbert noted. Whipple is a 42-year coaching veteran and previously worked with the Steelers and Cleveland Browns as quarterbacks coach during two of his stops. Pitt employed a system with pro-style concepts, which should make the transition a little less difficult.

"I don't know if it's the easiest transition," Whipple said, "but it's pretty much easier than maybe Ben [Roethlisberger] had it or other rookies that I had at Cleveland."

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The Steelers made Pickett this year's QB1 and the only signal-caller to hear his name called during the first two rounds. The organization spent all offseason closely scrutinizing and evaluating the position. Pittsburgh was clearly in the quarterback market after attending all of the major pro days and landed on the individual who was already in its building for the last five years, albeit on the other side. He's now the face of the franchise.

Despite the obvious ending to this setup, the Steelers used the rookie as their third-string quarterback during organized team activities. To Pickett's credit, he's saying all the right things, even though they're unnecessary.

"Yeah, man, I didn't think I was going to walk in and be the '1,' right?" the rookie told reporters. "So, it's kind of what I was expecting coming in here. Earn everything I get. Kind of how it goes in life and in the game, so I am excited to be here."

The idea of an actual quarterback competition is farcical. It's simply ingrained in the fabric of football after making a change at the position. When in fact, Pickett is an older prospect with an understanding of pro-style concepts and Trubisky is being paid like a backup quarterback. His $3.7 million salary-cap hit this season ranks 33rd among his position group, per Spotrac.

"We are all learning," Pickett said of the Steelers' quarterbacks. "I am learning and just kind of attacking each day. I think [the media] makes a bigger deal out of the competition than the players do because we are competing every single day regardless. So I am excited to be part of this team and compete."

Pickett did become the latest quarterback selected in the draft's opening round since Jim Druckenmiller in 1997, and this year's position class is counted among the worst in recent memory. Pickett isn't a slam-dunk prospect by any means. He's not in the same tier as Trevor Lawrence or even Zach Wilson and Justin Fields from last year's draft. Maybe he's a little more on the level of Jones, and that's OK. Though the comparison stops with their potential upside.

"The Pitt kid's athletic. He's got plenty of arm. He's really got all the tools that you need," an AFC quarterbacks coach told NFL Network's Tom Pelissero prior to this year's event.

"I don't think he's got great instincts in the pocket. I don't think he's a really quick decision-maker, sees it super clean [or] gets the ball out fast. But he can get on the edge and make some plays with his legs. It's almost the opposite of Mac Jones from last year. Because Mac was a super-quick decision-maker, you could tell he saw it fast, super accurate from the pocket and just missing the get-on-the-edge-type stuff, whereas this guy is the other way."

Pickett is far from a perfect prospect, hence why he landed in the back end of the first round. But there's still plenty to like about his game.

As mentioned, the Heisman Trophy finalist is an excellent athlete. According to Pro Football Network's Kent Lee Platte, Pickett ranked among the top 40 quarterbacks coming into the league since 1987 with an elite relative athletic score. Surprisingly, he posted a better score than Deshaun Watson coming into the league.

The Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner also left Pitt as a two-time captain and the program's all-time leading passer. He has enough arm talent, though he's not near the top end of the subjective scale. He's an excellent deep passer when working in rhythm. Pickett works his reads and takes his check-down option, if available.

According to Pro Football Focus, Pickett either tied or ranked first among FBS quarterbacks last season in overall grade and in passing grade. His 78.8 adjusted completion percentage turned out to be the best by an ACC quarterback since 2014. Keep in mind, Trubisky, Watson, Jameis Winston, Lamar Jackson, Daniel Jones and Lawrence played in the same conference during that stretch.

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His calmness in the pocket and heady play can be seen with 25 touchdown passes against the blitz, the most by a Power Five quarterback over the last seven years. His touch on deep passes can't be questioned after he finished with the second-lowest percentage of uncatchable passes beyond 10 years, per Pro Football Focus' Austin Gayle. He finished first in the category when operating from a clean pocket. Pickett even posted the highest passer rating against disguised coverages (h/t CBS Sports' Aditi Kinkhabwala).

"If you put a real good team around Kenny Pickett, he can function at a winning level right now," an AFC coordinator said. "He's just real close to his ceiling." An AFC scout added: "The guy that's closest to being ready is Pickett. But he's kind of [in the] Kirk Cousins mold. Does he really excite you? Is that the direction you want to go?"

Clearly, the Steelers think Pickett places the team on the right path after 18 seasons with Roethlisberger behind center (and the last two being painful to watch).

Concerns primarily arose about the first-team All-American's hand size (8½ inches) and only one year of elite production at an advanced age. Though issues within his skill set run a little deeper.

"While Pickett shows a solid understanding of NFL-level concepts, he is inconsistent with his timing on throws, often going one-and-done with his reads," Bleacher Report scout Nate Tice wrote in Pickett's scouting report. "He will also end up late getting to a second option on a concept because he is guessing when the next route will become available.

"He has a tendency to stare down one available route and then look to start a scramble drill outside of the pocket at unnecessary times, which can lead to sacks and missed opportunities."

Despite these specific areas in need of improvement, Pickett remains the Steelers' best quarterback option without question. Yes, growing pains should be expected. But the rookie will benefit from an improved supporting cast. Pittsburgh made investments along the offensive interior with the additions of Mason Cole and James Daniels and targets in the passing game with fellow rookies George Pickens and the speedy Calvin Austin III.

Even this early in the process, there's no point in dancing around the obvious: Pickett is the Steelers' franchise quarterback and should be treated as such.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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