Pavelle: Discussing The Kenny Pickett Selection

I had a really interesting Comments conversation with Nathan Tewkesbury on draft day about whether the Steelers should focus on Kenny Pickett for the pick at 1:20. Here it is, with the spelling and syntax cleaned up, plus some fictional words to make it flow a little cleaner. The exchange began when Nathan wrote:

NT: I keep comparing [Pickett] to Burrow because in situation football he was elite l. The Red Zone offense, 3rd down %, 2-minute/4-minute offense, and QB play against the pressure and/or blitz; Pickett excels in these areas. And I don’t know if anybody watching the NFL right now but this is probably the most important part of being a QB. Just seems like to me he is a football player and a natural QB who knows how to play the position even if he doesn’t have the 4.4 speed and cannon arm like a Willis.

SPP: I can’t get Andy Dalton out of my mind when I think of Pickett’s future. I like Dalton. He’s a middling NFL starter who’d make a phenomenal backup. I even think he could win a Super Bowl so long as the team did it, and he was only asked to avoid fouling things up. But is that the stuff of a Round 1 pick?

He took up the gauntlet:

NT: Why do you see Pickett as the next Dalton? I don’t get it. Did you not read my post about the facts and information I gave you. Does the game film not show Pickett as being the best at seeing the pressure, dealing with the pressure, and still making the throw. Does he not make all he throws. I’m just lost as to why everyone is finding reasons to not like Pickett when the reason to like him are NFL big boy reasons. All QBs that have done the things Pickett did with Pitt made the transition to the NFL and were pretty damn good. I just don’t see what everyone else is seeing and I’m blind I suppose because I see more Burrow than Dalton.

It’s always nice to have an informed and civilized conversation in the Comments, so I leapt on the chance to answer in kind:

SPP: I see Dalton doing all those things too. Read again: I like and respect the guy. Dalton is a good, professional, NFL quarterback you can win with. The issue is that he’s only good up to the point where you start comparing him to the greats, and then he flattens.

How good is the #20 or #30 tennis player in the world? Friggin’ amazing! But how many times will he beat the #5 or #4 or #1 in a tournament? Basically never. He will make the great ones work, and on his best day the match will be tight, but he lacks that rare extra gear. That is my analogy here.

There are times – many times – when “friggin’ amazing” is more than enough. I would feel that way now if, e.g., Trubisky or Rudolph got hit by a meteor and we had no competitive safety net at all. But in 2022 I see the Steelers searching for someone who could someday be a Top 5, not someone who’d be sure to make the team competitive. And that “extra” is the missing piece. Does that explain it?

I kind of thought that it didn’t, so I added this extra:

SPP: The “extra” doesn’t quantify well, so I tend to look for some extraordinary feature that might allow the player to pull himself higher. Mahomes’ arm and escapability. Josh’s uber cannon and size. Lamarr’s legs. Malik Willis has some superpowers. He just doesn’t know how to use them. But what is Kenny Pickett’s superpower? It’s a lot harder to figure how plain old Batman would win a fight against Superman, or the Flash, etc.

This deserves a little subtext that Nathan and I share as long time draft followers. It’s been a general rule of thumb that the Steelers tend to value upside more than floor. It doesn’t always work out. Jarvis Jones was considered a high floor pick, but his lack of potential ceiling doomed his NFL career to mediocrity. Artie Burns, by contrast, was seen as a boom-or-bust pick who had the potential to be great, but hadn’t shown in college that he could put the pieces together. He never did, and has seen a career no better than JJ’s.

The general view is that Pittsburgh has gradually grown toward higher ceiling players over time. It’s a trend that many tie to Mike Tomlin’s coaching prowess and success, for better or for worse. The glass half full contingent point to the belief that Pittsburgh’s coaches and culture can help young men to come along faster and better than teams without those foundations. The glass half empty view sees creeping hubris. Teams that say, “We can coach up anyone who has the raw talent” are teams that ultimately get reminded, “You win with good football players, not good anything else’s.” So Nathan and I, underneath the text, were also taking stands on how we believed Pittsburgh would approach the matter from a draft-philosophy point of view.

Moving on, Nathan answered me by saying:

NT: I like your analysis. Nice way to put things. But with Pickett I think the escapability is there. Might not be Mahomes or Big Ben but it’s there. It could be a superpower to be honest. I mean I think his pocket awareness and wheels could make it hard to sack consistently. He can make plays.

He also does not “blink” in those moments. His backyard, off-script throws from all release points I think could develop into a superpower. That’s a lot of where I don’t think he is getting enough credit for. The athletic traits to do something when it’s not there.

I guess my big thing is everyone finds reasons as to why he cannot develop or get better. I mean the more reps and more he sees,  the more comfortable and better he could become. A point to where he steps back and makes every right read pre-snap and post-snap. When the play breaks down the athletic ability to kick in a gear, escape and keep eyes downfield… That is “it” factor.

Again he did not play with the LSU talent at the skill positions. He did not have Ohio State WR’s, or an Alabama O-Line, or a Clemson defense on the other side of his team.

We just saw a guy play in the Super Bowl who was doing Pickett type stuff with better players. The pre-snap and post-snap progression seems top notch. That is why I see a better prospect than you do. Pickett just feels like a natural QB.

Here’s a hot tip for commenters: always acknowledge the other guy’s points, and try to make sure you understand them. We’re trying to make each other better, not to win mythical wit-points.

SPP: I do get what you’re saying. Making your argument, I would point to the all-time greats whose only superpowers were the intangible ones between the ears. Manning, Brady, Montana, Brees… I could go on. Those are the all-time all-timers too, so it’s clearly the best superpower of them all.

But for evaluation, don’t we need to look at what’s been proven? The only pro ready minds in my memory are Manning and Andrew Luck. Everyone else, including Pickett, are on a scale from NFL-poor to NFL-nonexistent. That is probably my biggest factor when it comes to floor. But I just can’t project it for ceiling outside of a Luck or Manning. Thus my “high floor, limited ceiling” description of Pickett; a/k/a Andy Dalton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and other potential #20’s in the world. You could say that I have a built-in asterisk on all QB draft grades to account for the chance he may develop that between-the-ears power.

Nathan answered in kind:

NT: I can feel that. But again between the ears or as I like to say Pickett has some “it” factor in him. I believe his red zone play, 3rd down percentage, and success in the 2-minute and 4-minute offenses are very strong indicators for NFL success. And his play against the pressure and/or blitz was elite, even though his O-Line was not very good.

Our interchange ended there, as other people got involved to agree or dispute the various points. But now, with the Pickett selection in the bag, I think that exchange makes a great framework for analyzing the choice to go with Kenny Pickett over the likes of Malik Willis.

The Depot scouts and film watchers did a very fine job pulling out the pluses and minuses of each prospect, and in assigning overall grades. In the end, those two prospects were very close together on the Steelers’ board, as shown by the fact that Pittsburgh stood pat until pick #20 rolled around. They had (at least) two players they’d be happy with, and thus felt no urgency to trade up so long as both/all/enough remained on the board. In the end, Pickett proved to be their man.

What can we learn from this?

First, that Ultimate Superpower between the ears really is what the professional scouts are looking for most. Mobility, arm strength, and the other physical assets need to hit minimum standards, with more being nice but not of supreme importance. In the end it comes down to a projection of what’s between the ears.

Second, the Steelers may be less obsessed with scouting for upside potential than we draftniks have come to believe. I, for one, will lighten my finger on that scale next year. Of course QB’s are different, with the mental part being proportionally more important, so maybe I shouldn’t lighten it all that much. Let’s see what the rest of the draft can teach.

Third, the Comments are a really good place for Depot readers to learn from each other. Just so long as we view mutual learning as the “win” rather than the one-upsmanship that drives so many people away. [Harrumph]

Signing off, and looking forward to Day 2.

P.S. Well done Nate! You got your guy, and it looks like the Steelers saw exactly what you did. Two thumbs up.

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