Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver George Pickens has been a fan favorite this year, and after Saturday night’s game winning touchdown reception he has become even more popular. Entering the season, Pickens was a dark horse to win Offensive Rookie of the Year due to the hype around his preseason and training camp performances.
While Pickens won’t be winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, that really isn’t on him and more so the play calling and subpar quarterback play throughout the season. However, when Pickens is targeted he normally performs. On the season, Pickens has 47 catches on 74 targets for 700 yards and three touchdowns. He is also average an insane 14.9 yards per catch which is tenth best in the NFL.
Part of the reason for such a high yards per catch number is due to the fact offensive coordinator Matt Canada sends Pickens on a lot of go routes due to his ability to make contested catches. According to PFF, Pickens has already made 17 contested catches, tied with Seattle Seahawks wide receiver D.K. Metcalf in 2019 for most by a rookie in a season since 2016. Pickens still has two more games to break that record, which given how he has been used all season he most likely will.
Pickens still has a ways to go to become a top end receiver in the NFL. One area in particular is his route running so he doesn’t have to make so many contested catches. Despite being good at catching passes with a defender draped all over him, it is much easier to not have to do that. Pickens averages a separation of only 2.4 yards from the nearest defender when he catches a pass according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats. It makes it harder for him to rack up yards after catch and just harder to make catches in general.
While Metcalf also struggles to create separation, averaging only 2.3 yards of separation, he has still become a very good player. While Metcalf had a better rookie season that Pickens, catching 58 passes for 900 yards and catching seven touchdowns, he also had a better quarterback in Russell Wilson who was a second team All-Pro member that season.
If Pickens follows a Metcalf-esque career arc, he could see a Pro-Bowl and a few 1,000 yard receiving seasons in his future. However, a lot of that will have to do with the quarterback play of the Steelers. While Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett is improving, as our own Josh Carney pointed out this morning, he still has a ways to go before becoming a very good NFL quarterback. However, having a player like Pickens who can catch almost anything within an arms reach will be a big help for Pickett.
Getting Metcalf comparisons is a great indication that Pickens will end up being a very good player. Pickens will likely break Metcalf’s rookie contested catch record in the next two games which will put him in a league of his own. It will then be up to him to grind hard in the offseason and continue to get better in all areas of his game so he can make a second year leap into the upper echelon of elite NFL wide receivers and help the Steelers once again become contenders to bring a Lombardi Trophy back to the Steel City.