PITTSBURGH — Kenny Pickett spent his first few months in the NFL intentionally buried on the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart, coach Mike Tomlin’s way of trying to ease the pressure on a young quarterback saddled with the outsized expectations that come with being a first-round pick at the most important position in the game.
A year later, a lot has changed. Pickett is no longer running with the scout team. And a strong finish to his rookie season has Pickett entering his second year in the league seemingly in full command of a Steelers offense that believes it can keep pace with the powers that be in the AFC.
The relentlessly tenacious approach that carried Pickett from modest high school recruit to ACC Player of the Year at the University of Pittsburgh to 20th overall pick in the 2022 draft has followed him to the other side of the complex the Panthers share with one of the NFL‘s marquee franchises.
It’s not unusual for Pickett to arrive early and throw himself into a chair in a small office set up with multiple video screens for players to use at their convenience.
There, he can pour over even the most minute details of a play or a practice, including the view from a “helmet cam” he’s been wearing during portions of organized team activities and minicamp.
The images from the camera can be a little bumpy at times – call it the byproduct of trying to navigate a sea of 300-pound offensive and defensive men – but it does help Pickett drill down on the details he knows he needs to perfect if he wants to make the leap Tomlin expects all second-year players to make regardless of their role.
For Pickett, that means watching helmet cam footage (as jumbly as it may be) to figure out where his eyes go on a given play, starting when he gets to the line of scrimmage and ending with wherever he decides to throw the ball.
“Just little things (like that),” Pickett said.
While Pickett found a way to make things happen when extending plays – his deft scramble to his left to buy time to throw the game-winning touchdown against Baltimore in Week 17 is the best example – he’s trying to master the “subtle nuances” of throwing from the pocket as quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan put it.
That includes stepping up rather than escaping when the pass rush is bearing down, which lets him still look downfield rather than look away while trying to locate an escape route.
“It’s been pleasing to us to see the improvement he has made in those areas,” Sullivan said. “And you know, it’s still early, it’s spring, we’re here in shorts and just helmets. But that’s something that’s part of that next step that we’re hoping to see him make.”
The dynamic on the practice field this spring is markedly different than in 2022 when Pickett hung with the third team while Mitch Trubisky got the reps with the starters.
While Trubisky is still around after signing a contract extension last month, he’s now firmly in the role of mentor/veteran backup.
This is Pickett‘s offense until further notice and the player who was dutifully reticent until he was handed the keys at halftime of a Week 4 loss to the New York Jets is making a point to check every box. That includes being more vocal and more visible both on and off the field.
“I just feel like it’s kind of like a natural transition,” Pickett said. “I don’t try to force anything. I think I just want to step up when I feel like I need to step up.”
His steady play down the stretch in 2022 as Pittsburgh won seven of its last nine to finish 9-8 – particularly engineering consecutive last-minute wins over Las Vegas and Baltimore – showed Pickett has the potential to thrive in the NFL. The Steelers spent the offseason beefing things up around Pickett, trading for veteran wide receiver Allen Robinson, drafting left tackle Broderick Jones in the first round and grabbing massive 6-foot-8 tight end Darnell Washington in the third.
Unlike a year ago, when offensive coordinator Matt Canada unveiled the offense in manageable bits and pieces in an effort not to overwhelm Pickett, the Steelers have already installed everything in the playbook. There is a feeling of momentum building now that the offensive makeover that began in earnest in 2021 is essentially complete.
It’s why Canada tempers his assessment of the progress Pickett has made by noting that Pickett won’t be out there by himself. It will take all 11 players to make sure the Steelers get to the end zone far more frequently than the team that finished 26th in the league in scoring in 2022.
“We’ve got (to) score more points, got to be better in the red zone, have some more explosive plays,” Canada said. “There’s a lot of things to work on.”
Just maybe not as much as last summer. Pickett, who turned 25 earlier this month and is getting married on June 24, is no longer a rookie trying to find his way. He’s an NFL starter now, one who is confident the Steelers are drawing closer to becoming the kind of offense that will let them go toe-to-toe with Kansas City, Cincinnati and Buffalo in the near future.
“We have everything in place,” Pickett said. “If we go execute we will be able to go shot for shot with those guys. And that’s the goal. Those teams that are playing deep into (the playoffs), they have that and that’s what we need to get to.”
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