The transition from college to the NFL is not easy, and the majority of rookies don’t make an immediate impact. For quarterbacks, this transition is particularly hard, especially given everything that goes into the position. The Pittsburgh Steelers are seeing this transition first hand, as the team is starting first-round rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett. Pickett’s rookie season is up and down with gradual improvement, and the gap in talent between his competition at Pitt and with the Steelers is undeniably night and day.
One challenge for rookie quarterbacks is the difference in the volume of opposing defenses. During the Monday Night Football broadcast on ESPN, color commentator Troy Aikman cited said volume on the defense is the cause of Pickett’s growing pains. When asked about this, the Steelers’ rookie delved into his transition to the NFL.
“Everyone just talks about the speed of players and the speed of the game is faster,” Pickett said when asked about the volume of the defense in his transition to the NFL according to a transcript provided by the team. “And that’s true, definitely, everyone’s faster. But I think as a rookie coming in, one, you’re learning a new system, and two, you’re going against a lot more defenses than you’re used to in college. I think when people think, from a quarterback standpoint at least, just talking about when the game moves faster, there’s a lot more going on mentally.”
Learning a new system is difficult. Learning how to play new defenses that don’t typically give the same look adds another layer of difficulty. Pickett, who played for the Pittsburgh Panthers during his college career, is indeed seeing a wider variety of defenses in his transition from the ACC to the NFL. All things considered, however, Pickett is developing well after struggling his first several games.
Pickett was drafted at 24 years old, as he played five seasons at Pitt. As such, the expectation was for him to be comfortable being an immediate starter, as he was often touted as the most “pro-ready” quarterback in the 2022 NFL draft. Pickett is coming off his highest graded game according to PFF, and has not turned the ball over since the bye week.
“In college, you get in the flow of the game,” Pickett continued. “You’re going to see the same look multiple times and when you make sideline adjustments on it, you can almost guarantee that you’re going to get that same look that you saw earlier in the game. I think at this level, you’re going to see multiple looks of the same formation structurally that we have. I think there’s just a higher volume in the game plan of defenses in the NFL based off of college and that’s just the main difference that I’ve seen.”
Indeed, the difference between college football and the NFL in play-calling cannot be understated. As paid professionals, NFL defenders are expected to execute a much wider variety of formations and coverages, which makes it inherently harder to play the quarterback position at the pro level. This is a transition that every rookie quarterback has to make, and some have done it better than others.
If one thing is for certain, it’s that Pickett is displaying a better understanding of said coverages than he did at first. For a rookie that practiced with the second team during training camp and the preseason, his adjustment to the NFL has been commendable. While it cannot be stressed enough that the verdict is still out on whether he is the team’s franchise quarterback, his progression as a rookie is telling.