Let me start off this deep dive film by stating this very clearly:
I DO NOT think that Kenny Pickett is the second coming of Joe Burrow.
There, now that is out of the way, let me present to you why I am conducting this film review of the two players. First, Pitt QB Kenny Pickett has drawn a lot of comparisons during the pre-draft process to Joe Burrow coming out of LSU who now plays for the division-rival Cincinnati Bengals. From a scouting perspective, the two signal callers have very similar measurables as listed below:
6’3 1/4”, 217lb, 30 7/8” arm, 8 1/2” hand,
6’3 1/2”, 221lb, 30 7/8” arm 9” hand
Another often-used comparison is their similar meteoric rise from obscurity from their previous college season to their final college season, blowing up the stat sheet and smashing records in what skeptics would tab as a “One Year Wonder”:
Kenny Pickett Stats in 2020:
203 completions on 332 attempts (61.1%) for 2,408 yards (7.3 YPA) with 13 TDs and nine INTs, 129.6 QB rating, 81 carries for 145 yards (1.8 YPC), and eight TDs in nine games played
Kenny Pickett Stats in 2021:
334 completions on 497 attempts (67.2%) for 4,319 yards (8.7 YPA) with 42 TDs and seven INTs, 165.3 QB rating, 97 carries for 241 yards (2.5 YPC), and five TDs in 13 games played
Joe Burrow Stats in 2018:
219 completions on 379 attempts (57.8%) for 2,894 yards (7.6 YPA) with 16 TDs and five INTs, 133.2 QB rating, 128 carries for 399 yards (3.1 YPC), and seven TDs in 13 games played
Joe Burrow Stats in 2019:
402 completions on 527 attempts (76.3%) for 5,671 yards (10.8 YPA) with 60 TDs and six INTs, 202.0 QB rating, 115 carries for 368 yards (3.2 YPC), and five TDs in 15 games played
When looking at the stats, it’s easy to see that Burrow far surpassed Pickett in terms of statistical output in his final season. When you average the number of games played out for each player, the numbers are closer, but still favor Burrow. While Pickett did have the likes of Jordan Addison to throw to this season, Burrow had the benefit of a NFL-caliber offensive line in front of him, a first round running back in the backfield, and multiple NFL-caliber WRs at his disposal, two of which (Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson) are arguably two of the top five WRs in the game today.
Still, this isn’t meant to be an argument for who had the better season, but the distinct rise in production and level of play between the two QBs. The level up from one year to the next for both passers is shocking and frankly eerily similar, hence the outside comparisons giving the stats and nearly identical frames.
Now, let’s dive into the tape and look at what similarities that Kenny Pickett and Joe Burrow share in terms of ability and style of play. Again, this isn’t meant to create a one-for-one comparison of the two, but rather suggest a lot of the things that Burrow was lauded for as well as knocked on coming out of LSU are like the key aspects Pickett has been praised for or knocked during this pre-draft process.
So, sit back, grab your bag of popcorn, and if you are feeling rowdy, fasten up your seatbelts, kids, because we are going for quite a ride.
Middle of the Field/Slant Patterns
Compared to what Steelers fans are used to over previous seasons with Ben Roethlisberger, Kenny Pickett actually does a pretty good job attacking the middle of the field. This especially shows up on short, slant patterns in in this clip of a TD pass on a slant pattern in the red zone. In fact, Steelers Depot’s very own Clayton Eckert who highlights Pickett’s accuracy and decision making:
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett is the final player above the mean in both data points, with the best on target percentage and sixth ranked completion percentage on the second most attempts, which is over twice as many attempts as the previously mentioned players. This highlights his impressive accuracy and volume in scoring situations where defenses have less ground to cover.
When you pop in the tape of Joe Burrow making similar throws over the middle on slant and short crossing patterns, you see those similar traits of timing, anticipation, and accuracy to place the ball on his receiver in close proximity to the defender or in position to hit his receiver in-stride to create YAC like we see on the second clip that Ja’Marr Chase ends up taking to the house.
As we have heard throughout the pre-draft process, Pickett doesn’t possess the elite arm strength of some of the top tier NFL QBs like Josh Allen or Patrick Mahomes. However, he does have enough of an arm to attack down the field vertically compared to what Pittsburgh has had to deal with the last few seasons with Roethlisberger showing regression in terms of overall arm strength compared to what he had earlier in his NFL career. Pickett actually rated second in draft eligible QBs this season in Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANY/A) according to one of Eckert’s studies and frankly represented himself well in terms of completed air yards percentage, thus meaning he is able to deliver a fairly accurate deep ball.
Pickett has the fifth rank and fared well across the board with top three ranks as a passer in total yards, total air yards, air yards %, and ANY/A along with a strong and above the mean result in accuracy!
One of the few knocks on Joe Burrow coming out of LSU dealt with the fact that he wasn’t known for having a cannon of an arm either, but many draft evaluators shrugged that off stating that he has plenty arm enough to make most of the throws an NFL QB will be asked to make. You saw his ability to attack down the field with great accuracy on the deep ball at LSU, and his teammates with the Bengals say that his arm strength has improved since being drafted. If that has been the case with Burrow as a 23-year-old rookie going for college to the pros, possibly there is hope that Pickett’s overall arm strength and deep ball ability can improve as well.
As mentioned above, Pickett has been tracked the have the best on-target % of any of the QBs in this draft class and saw his completion % jump to 67.2%, up nearly six percentage points from the previous season. While some of his throws would tend to be low or just behind his receiver at times, a lot of that had to do with footwork and base as a passer, needing more consistent lower body mechanics to make those throws more routinely.
Still, he possesses a tight spiral and his accuracy while on the move out of the pocket also sticks out on several of his off-platform throws. Watch these two plays and Pickett’s ability to fit the ball in on the run on the first clip and then over the defender in the end zone in the second clip.
We see a nearly identical throw to the one above by Pickett against UNC here by Burrow in the Wildcard matchup against the Raiders, putting the ball right over the linebacker in coverage to his receiver running down the seam. Burrow’s ball placement and overall accuracy as a passer was one of his best traits coming out of LSU, having the ability to fit the ball into tight windows or over a defender into his receiver’s hands while on the move. In fact, his completion % spiked nearly 20 percentage points to 76.3% in his final season in college and rose above 70% last season in his second year in the league.
Off Platform/Out of Pocket Throws
While not on the same level as an athlete like Malik Willis from the same draft class, Pickett is a functional athlete that has the mobility to maneuver inside the pocket as well as the ability to get outside the pocket and make some of those unconventional, off-platform throws Mahomes, Allen, and other recently drafted QBs have made famous across the league. This mobility allows him to evade the rush and extends plays, giving receivers time to get open for him to win outside of the pocket. In a recent interview, Pickett’s QB coach Tony Racioppi touted his pupil’s ability to create outside of structure as a passer:
“Really, what’s been added to that list over the last four, five, six years is the ability to move. Nobody wants a statue guy anymore, because everybody’s just too athletic”, he said about what teams are looking for in quarterbacks today. “He could do those things. I tell people all the time, the two things people don’t realize he is, is, A, how really athletic he really is, and then how good his arm is”.
Joe Burrow would hardly qualify as a dual-threat quarterback himself, not possessing the dynamic athleticism that other AFC North rival QBs Lamar Jackson or Deshaun Watson have as an example. However, Burrow too has shown the ability to create as a passer outside of structure, being able to move inside the pocket and drift out of the pocket as the pressure is coming, possessing that mobility to escape and throw from various platforms like on this scramble drill against Clemson to give his receiver time to uncover and get open for Burrow to put it on the money.
Pickett On the Run:
This mobility as a passer also aids in the QB’s ability to effectively execute play action rollouts or throw on the run as they are flushed out of the pocket due to the pass rush. This puts defenses in a bind having to hunt down a moving target rather than a statue like Ben was in the final stages of his NFL career. This makes Pickett a great fit in OC Matt Canada’s offense as Alex Kozora pointed out in a recent film room as Pickett combines the mobility with the requisite arm strength and accuracy to make those throws and truly allow Canada to open up the playbook.
Burrow On the Run
When you watch Burrow back at LSU and now in Cincinnati, you see those same athletic traits of being able to create outside of structure and showcase his arm talent and accuracy while on the move. Again, he may not be the most dynamic athlete outside of the pocket, but he is above-the-bar in terms of accomplishing what you ask your QB to do while on the move.
Out Route/Outside the Numbers
Another indicator of arm strength at the QB position is the ability to drive throws outside the numbers in the passing game with zip and velocity. While going through Kenny Pickett’s tape, you do see some inconsistencies in terms of this velocity and being able to deliver the ball quickly to the sideline. However, some of these issues also stem from his footwork and base as mentioned previously, as there are several examples on tape of him adequately throwing the ball outside the numbers with zip and velocity like we see in this one instance against Clemson, fitting the ball to his receiver along the sideline with a defender closing in on the ball.
Burrow possesses that same ability to fit the ball into tight windows along the sideline on out-breaking routes like on this example against Texas, taking the shotgun snap and drops back, stepping up to deliver a strike along the sideline to Justin Jefferson with the cornerback closing in to contest the pass.
Back Shoulder Throws:
Ball placement and accuracy also show up in the ability to complete back shoulder throws as a passer to manipulate close coverage, giving your receiver to come back and make a play on the football when the defender in coverage doesn’t have much of a chance to contest the pass. It takes a talented passer to make this throws consistently as well as a mind meld between QB and WR to get them to connect like we have seen time-and-again from Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams with the Packers. While not at quite that level, Pickett has instances of these same back shoulder completions to his #1 target Jordan Addison like on this impressive throw and catch by both players.
Burrow has a similar connection with former college teammate and current teammate on the Bengals in Ja’Marr Chase, having the confidence to put it in a specific location and have Chase contort his body to make a play on the ball in the air. That connection was on full display this past season in the NFL, but it started at LSU like you can see from this TD catch that Chase hauls in on the back shoulder fade to the end zone thrown by Burrow.
Cover 2 Hole Shot Throws:
The great Dave Bryan often references the “Cover 2 Hole Shot” throws or zone beater throws that franchise-caliber QBs must be able to make to earn the respect of opposing defenses with their ability to drop balls into specific locations where the zone coverage opens up. Here are a couple of examples by Pickett accomplishing this, the first one coming on a wheel route to the left sideline where it isn’t a “Hole Shot” per se, but rather he puts in the bucket as the receiver outruns the defender and gets it there before the safety overtop can get there to contest the pass.
Here is another throw that better resembles a traditional Cover 2 Hole Shot where Pickett drops the ball into the hands of his intended target in-between the linebacker tasked with coverage as well as the safety rolling over from overtop.
Joe Burrow has become something of a savant when it comes to these types of throws, dropping the ball into the bucket to his man with defenders both on top and behind the intended target. Here are two examples, one from this past season with the Bengals, and another from his final season at LSU with Burrow showing the touch and ball placement on this throws along the sideline with defensive backs converging on the football.
Ability as a Runner:
As mentioned earlier, Kenny Pickett possesses the requisite mobility as a passer to execute Matt Canada’s offense given his ability to maneuver inside and outside the pocket as well as his ability to throw off-platform on the run. While mobility as a passer is important in today’s game, QBs are now more than ever are also being expected to be a legitimate threat on the ground with their legs.
The ability to create as a runner when the play breaks down puts a lot of stress on opposing defenses as the Steelers have seen with the likes of Lamar Jackson in the division. While Pickett isn’t that dynamic of a runner, he has that ability to get it done on the ground like Coach Racioppi referenced when on Mad Dog Sports Radio earlier in the week:
“He can move, and he’s gonna have to move. And he’s done it”, he said. “I think the biggest jump he saw this year was the fact he would sit in there and go through his progressions this year when he didn’t have to go. And then if he had to go, he could extend plays, either making plays downfield or if people dropped in coverage or if they played man coverage, he could take off and get first downs”.
You saw that same level of mobility as a runner from Burrow at LSU who, in fact, rushed for 399 and 368 yards in back-to-back college seasons, scoring 12 times on the ground with his legs. Burrow wouldn’t be labeled as a dynamic dual-threat QB either, but he has the traits to scramble when the play breaks down or when he sees open grass and pick up the first down with his legs or potentially score if close to the goal line if unaccounted for.
So, are the comparisons between Joe Burrow and Kenny Pickett valid. I would answer yes…. But to a point. Both players overcame adversity and rose from obscurity to post record-breaking performances for their respective schools in their final collegiate seasons. Both players saw their draft stock soar from Late Day Three selections to first round picks. Both QBs have nearly identical measurables and athletic traits as well as stylistically play a similar type of game to one another when putting their film side-by-side. Both QBs have been labeled as “gamers”, not possessing incredible arm strength or dynamic speed, but can command an offense, making full field reads, and showcase accuracy while having a sufficient arm and functional athleticism for a starting NFL quarterback.
Now, I do recognize that Burrow sticks out over Pickett notably in several areas including accuracy when under pressure, pocket presence, overall arc/touch on the deep ball, and that competitive aroura he gives off on the field to the point where he comes off as cocky, carrying this “over my dead body” mentality that you love to see in your franchise signal caller. That’s what made Burrow the #1 overall pick back in 2020, and that is why Pickett was seen as the best QB in an oft-labeled weak QB draft class.
Pickett undoubtedly needs to improve his pocket presence and be more aware of pressure as a passer going to the next level. His footwork also needs to be more consistent to deliver more accurate passes with better velocity on a regular basis. However, after diving more into the tape, I am not going to be the one to say that Pickett can’t improve and build on his final season in college as he transitions to the pros. He may never reach the heights that Burrow has achieved in his first two NFLs seasons, and that’s completely ok, otherwise he would’ve been the #1 overall pick in the draft.
However, given the vast similarities as mentioned above as well as athletic limitations both share, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that Pickett can’t be viewed as a discounted version of Burrow in the league. Say Pittsburgh gets 80-85% of what Joe Burrow as an NFL QB in Kenny Pickett at #20 overall? I would imagine that they would take that in an instant, and honestly, we should too.
The jury is out on Kenny Pickett and what he can be in the league but given the fact that a redshirt senior who was a “one year wonder” in college showed that it’s possible to become a franchise QB like Burrow did, here’s hoping that Pickett can follow a similar trend now as a division rival in Pittsburgh. What are your thoughts on the Burrow/Pickett comparisons? Do they have any merit, or are they completely uncalled for? Do you see similarities in their athletic profile/play styles? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!