Kenny Pickett Is a Risk NFL Team's Shouldn't Take Early in 2022 NFL DraftMarch 26, 2022
The hot topic of the 2022 NFL draft has been the perceived lack of talent among the quarterback class. Teams have shown desperation throughout the offseason thus far as they've moved significant draft capital and committed millions of dollars to mediocre veterans such as Carson Wentz and Mitchell Trubisky. Despite this, we've still routinely seen buzz of two quarterbacks being selected in the top 10: Liberty's Malik Willis and Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett.
Willis has the most dynamic skill set of any quarterback prospect, justifying his status as a high first-round pick. But it's much more confusing to see Pickett as an option for the Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round, as he is the riskiest quarterback in the draft.
The fifth-year senior is coming off a breakout season in 2021, where he benefited from a spread scheme that highlighted his quick release and short accuracy. Posting a 67.2 percent completion rate, 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions, Pickett was a massive riser after being an afterthought among a deep crop of college quarterbacks. There was little evidence throughout his career to suggest he would be a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate until 2021.
With the NFL prioritizing faster decision-making from quarterbacks to offset the vast talent at the edge position across defenses, Pickett fits the bill of an experienced collegiate passer who can start early in his career. In fact, he turns 24 in June and is two years older than 2021 first-round pick Trey Lance. But reviewing Pickett's game reveals a flawed player who faces long odds to be more than a middling game manager in the NFL.
The rise of prominent playmakers at the quarterback position has changed what wins in the pros. The AFC alone has Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Justin Herbert. Each of those passers has incredible physical attributes or innate awareness and feel for the game.
Pickett has shown none of the above, and some of his limitations are out of his control. His hand measured in at a low 8.5 inches at the combine and then "grew" to 8.625 inches at his pro day. This has led to some skepticism since there hasn't been a quality quarterback in the NFL with a hand size under nine inches, but this wouldn't be a major concern if Pickett's game were as polished as his experience would suggest.
Examples of quick checkdowns and prioritizing the short routes are prominent throughout his 2021 season despite advantageous situations for deeper routes to develop. This strategy worked well, as he offset poor pass blocking with dump-off passes. I charted Pickett as throwing a catchable pass on a whopping 85.5 percent of his 207 passes between zero and 10 yards.
However, his dependence on short routes shows an inability to recognize pre- and post-snap defensive alignments. He loves to extend plays and usually rolls to his right, with 53 of his 66 out-of-pocket attempts in 2021 coming from the right of the pocket. But this crutch can't continue, as NFL defenses will simply roll coverages and bring an extra pass-rusher to the strong side of the field to restrict his greatest strength.
The raw accuracy numbers for Pickett show a highly competent passer between the numbers up to 19 yards, and this is the key to his sustained role in the NFL. For teams with porous offensive lines like Carolina and Pittsburgh, replicating the short game and having receivers cross his direct sightline is critical. Asking him to hit tight windows and isolated routes outside the numbers will expose a weaker arm and lack of anticipation.
Once his primary read isn't open, Pickett often panics and runs into pressure or breaks the offensive flow. His accuracy rate of 57.5 percent under pressure compares decently to the other drafted quarterbacks I've charted since 2013 (he's 28th of 88), but his physical traits will be exposed when the hash marks and passing windows are tighter in the NFL.
Unlike his peers, the only way for Pickett to overcome his inability to reliably throw off-platform is to master his pre-snap reads. However, he struggles to attack downfield windows when his receivers don't outright win their one-on-one route against man coverage. A fifth-year senior with 1,674 passing attempts on his resume should be much quicker and more efficient at winning pre-snap.
Pickett is also a virtual non-factor in 3rd-and-long situations. Of his 39 pass attempts on third and fourth down and 10 or more yards, only 18 went beyond the markers. Only 10 of those 18 attempts were catchable. A journeyman such as Teddy Bridgewater has the same limitations and restricts what an offense can achieve in key moments.
The first-round hype around Willis and Desmond Ridder is justified because they blend both physical traits and an aggressive mindset. Pickett has the skill set to be a quality stopgap starter, but he'll always leave his team looking for an upgrade and isn't worth a first-round pick.
There couldn't be a worse fit in this year's draft for Pickett than Carolina or Pittsburgh considering their poor pass blocking and vertical receiving threats. New Orleans makes slightly more sense, but Jameis Winston still has more upside. Atlanta is better off waiting for a more loaded 2023 class than surrounding Pickett with a horrible cast.
The best outcome for Pickett is for him to fall into a backup situation on Day 2. Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Detroit and the Los Angeles Rams make more sense for him to potentially develop behind veterans. Otherwise, spending a first-round pick on him would be gambling that he is a glaring exception in the history of the NFL draft.