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Carney: Pickett’s Progression Positive, But Still A Long Way To Go Before Becoming ‘Franchise QB’

In the draft evaluation process, it’s very hard to quantify or truly identify when a player — especially a quarterback — has that “it” factor.

For Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, it’s pretty clear 10 games and 11 starts into his career with the black and gold that the former Pittsburgh Panthers star and surprising first-round draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft has that “it” factor.

He’s as calm, cool, collected and confident late in games on potential game-winning drives as he is on the first series or two of a game. The stakes don’t faze him. Neither do the bright lights or the overall moment.

That much was evident again on Christmas Eve against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 16 at Acrisure Stadium.

Trailing 10-6 with 2:55 left in the game, Pickett marched the Steelers right down the field by completing 7-of-9 passes for 75 yards, including the game-winning 14-yard strike to fellow rookie George Pickens up the seam between two Raiders defenders for the win.

The drive showed serious progression once again for Pickett. In fact, it was his third such game-winning drive of the season, including drives against the New Orleans Saints in Week 10 and the Indianapolis Colts on the road in Week 12.

Each and every week, Pickett is steadily improving, which is a very positive sign overall. He’s learning on the fly at the highest level, isn’t making the same mistakes twice and generally getting better and better each and every week he’s on the field. In fact, of the last three games, he’s started and finished this season, Pickett has his three highest grades of the season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Saturday night’s game-winning drive against the Raiders on a rather emotional night following the passing of Franco Harris has many riding high, believing the Steelers have their franchise quarterback for the next 10-15 seasons. That very well may be true, but for that to be a definitive, Pickett still has a long way to go overall.

While Pickett has steadily improved and is showing signs of true leadership and overall moxie at the position, it’s important to note that these three highest grades came in matchups against the lowly Colts, Atlanta Falcons and now Raiders. Not exactly three defenses that are playing great football overall.

The improvement has been on the right path the last few weeks — steadily upward — and the late-game heroics are quite fun, but it’s time for Pickett to start showing that consistency in a game from start to finish. There’s a possibility he’s held back by the scheme and the play-calling within the game as the Steelers avoid being aggressive and not turning the ball over. If that’s the case, it’s a bit understandable as the Steelers try to protect a rookie quarterback, but at this point in the season, the Steelers should know what they have in Pickett and what he can and can’t do.

Turn him loose.

That’s the next step in the progression for Pickett. While he hasn’t lost the Steelers many games this season — only the losses to the Jets and Dolphins come to mind — Pickett needs to start taking more chances and being more aggressive, especially downfield. The offense cannot continue to be conservative and playing not to lose until late in the game and then all of a sudden turn it on.

Cardiac, late-game heroics simply isn’t a sustainable style of football to play, especially with an offense featuring the type of pieces that the Steelers have in Najee Harris, Diontae Johnson, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth. Some of the issues with the lack of consistency throughout games might be due to the scheme and the overall playcalling.

You won’t hear an argument from me there.

As far as Pickett’s abilities go though, he has to improve on throwing the deep ball, and he needs to clean up some of the pocket presence stuff, like bailing from clean pockets and always rolling to his right before we truly try and anoint him the next franchise quarterback worth building around.

There’s no denying his character and leadership, but that only goes so far on the field.

Adding that deep ball element to his game consistently could really do wonders for the Steelers’ offense. According to Pro Football Focus, Pickett has attempted just 36 deep passes (20+ yards) this season, completing only 13 of them (36.1% completion). That said, of those 36 attempts, 10 have been considered big-time throws, and just two have been turnover-worth plays on the season.

The pocket presence stuff will come with time. He doesn’t have happy feet overall, which is good, but he has a comfort being on the run out to his right. He bailed on clean pockets a lot in college, and he’s doing so in the NFL to this point. It’ll have to be drilled into him by quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan. At times this season, the presence has been good, but when the game gets late and a play needs to be made, Pickett goes back to his tried and true method of getting on the move.

When it comes to Pickett overall, he might never be that top 5-7 quarterback in the NFL, let alone a top 10 guy, which is what many should expect with him being a first-round draft pick. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a serviceable, winning quarterback overall that has a nice, long career.

I’ve compared him time and time again to a guy like Alex Smith. For some reason, that comparison is viewed as a negative. It shouldn’t be. Smith won 99 career games over 14 season in the NFL and 174 games played (167 starts), compiling a record of 99-67-1 (.593 winning percentage). On top of that, Smith went to three Pro Bowls in his career. That said, Smith also went just 2-5 in the playoffs, losing his last three playoff appearances in his career, including one to the Steelers in 2016.

Smith was never a high-level quarterback overall, but he was a darn good game manager that could make the necessary plays to win games behind a strong running game and a good defense. He was also good enough to handle the load at times in his career too and could really sling it with great timing, anticipation and accuracy.

That’s where Pickett can win in the NFL for a long, long time. He’s doing that — at times — right now.

If he can find that consistency throughout games, he can become that franchise quarterback the Steelers searched for all offseason and believe they found. The moxie and leadership is real, but from an on-field production standpoint, the rookie has a long way to go, and that’s perfectly fine.

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