Hot Takes, Predictions for Steelers Rookies After 2022 NFL Draft
It's the start of a new era for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only does the team enter 2022 without longtime starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but it will also move forward without longtime general manager Kevin Colbert.
Colbert stepped down from his post following the conclusion of the 2022 draft, but his final talent grab with the Steelers looks to be a good one.
Pittsburgh selected seven prospects in total, including first-round quarterback Kenny Pickett. This class has the potential to reshape the team for years to come, as many of Colbert's past draft classes have done—notably the 2004 class, when Colbert was director of football operations and snagged Big Ben.
While it's impossible to know exactly how the outgoing GM's final draft class will pan out, we're here to deliver a couple of hot takes and make some bold predictions for the 2022 season.
First, though, let's recap how the 2022 NFL draft unfolded.
2022 NFL Draft Results
Pickett Is the Future but Won't Start in Week 1
By taking Pickett 20th overall, the Steelers have officially tapped him to be Roethlisberger's long-term successor.
The 23-year-old could begin the process early, as he was widely viewed as a low-ceiling, high-floor prospect coming into the draft.
"Pickett is the most ready to play, so people may not want to pass on him like Mac Jones last year," one NFC executive said, per NFL Media's Tom Pelissero. "Everybody's like, what's his ceiling?"
Pickett, who passed for 4,319 yards with 42 touchdowns and only seven interceptions last season, should be ready to play sooner than later but don't expect him to start in Week 1. With Mason Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky in the fold, Pittsburgh doesn't need to rush the rookie into action, and it shouldn't.
The team's offensive line remains a work in progress. It allowed 38 sacks last season while paving the way for the league's 29th-ranked rushing offense in yards per attempt. The Steelers did add center Mason Cole and guard James Daniels in free agency, but the line will need time to gel. So, too, will an offense that includes rookie receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin III.
The Steelers have never experienced a losing season under head coach Mike Tomlin. That's unlikely to change in 2022, regardless of who is under center. However, Pickens should only be on the field once conditions are right for him to succeed. He wasn't drafted to make the 2022 playoffs, he was drafted for the future.
Expect Rudolph and/or Trubisky to take the early-season lumps, with Pickett coming in only after the offense has found its groove.
Pittsburgh Got a Steal in George Pickens
The Steelers have a great track record of finding high-end receiving talent on Day 2, and they did it again on Friday. With the 52nd overall pick, they landed Pickens, the 32nd-ranked prospect on the Bleacher Report Scouting Department's big board.
The 21-year-old tore his right ACL in March last year but battled back to appear in four games. In 2020, he caught 36 passes for 513 yards and six touchdowns. While his raw numbers over the past two seasons are unimpressive, his commitment to football is not.
"The one intangible you really have to give him a lot of credit for is coming back and playing," Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada told reporters during the draft.
Pickens, a 6'3", 195-pound physical marvel who catches just about everything, also possesses tremendous upside. He posted a 4.47-second 40-yard dash and 33-inch vertical at the scouting combine. He has the makeup of a future No. 1 perimeter receiver, and that's what he may eventually become with the Steelers.
The Georgia product might not be an instant star out of the gate, as he'll be competing with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Anthony Miller and tight end Pat Freiermuth for targets early. But he can contribute right away as an oversized slot target and eventually become Pickett's top option.
There's a real chance that Pickens will be viewed as one of the biggest steals of the 2022 draft in a few years' time.
DeMarvin Leal Is a Developmental Prospect but Will Top 5 Sacks as a Rookie
In the third round, the Steelers took former Texas A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal. Like Pickens, he is a prospect with more upside than proven production, but the 6'3", 283-pounder has loads of upside.
Despite not having a defined position heading into the NFL, the 21-year-old is an explosive athlete who will contribute early on passing downs.
"As a 6-tech defensive end, some of Leal's favorite pass-rushing moves—his jump swipe and inside spin—are more viable. And he has the quick feet to operate in space," Derrik Klassen of the B/R Scouting Department wrote. "But he does not quite have the flexibility to win the edge. Nor does he have the power to bull-rush through people."
Leal is a bit of a project, and he isn't likely to consistently win as a pass-rusher early. However, he has a refined enough technique to play a role in a pass rush that yielded 55 sacks a year ago. Pittsburgh's blitz-heavy scheme isn't likely to disappear under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
Expect the No. 84 pick to see the field sporadically on passing downs early in the season as Pittsburgh continues refining his skill set. Also expect him to do enough to notch at least 5.5 sacks by season's end.
Leal logged 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and two passes defended in 2021, and his skills will translate with a little seasoning.