Why George Pickens’ Impressive Contested Catch Numbers Are A Mixed Blessing

George Pickens is the one player everybody in Pittsburgh decided to love as soon as the Steelers drafted him. Not even Pitt alumnus and potential franchise quarterback Kenny Pickett was met with such a unanimously favorable reception.

What did he do during his rookie season? Well, in addition to catching 52 passes on 84 targets for 801 yards and four touchdowns (plus a rushing touchdown), he was also something of a one-man highlight reel. Especially when targeted down the sideline in one-on-one coverage.

According to Pro Football Focus, he had more contested catches as a rookie (19) than any other rookie had had since at least 2016, when they began tracking contested-catch situations. What’s more, he had the third-most contested catches in the NFL by anybody during the 2022 season, behind only D.K. Metcalf (24) and Justin Jefferson (21).

Now, is that a good thing? Well, in a vacuum, sure. In fact, he was superb in contested-catch situations. Of all players who had at least 25 contested targets on the year, his catch rate of 67.86 was higher than anybody else.

There is a flip side, however, and it’s one that concerns me a bit. While he only ranked 12th in total contested targets on the season with 28, he had the highest percentage of targets on the season that were contested out of qualifying receivers (those with at least 80 targets), as a full third (33.33%) of his targets fell into that category. The sheet below is sortable.

Player Total Targets Contested Targets Contested Target % Contested Catches Contested Comp. %
George Pickens 84 28 33.33 19 67.86
Courtland Sutton 106 33 31.13 14 42.42
D.K. Metcalf 152 47 30.92 24 51.06
Donovan Peoples-Jones 95 29 30.53 11 37.93
Mike Williams 90 26 28.89 15 57.69
Garrett Wilson 139 39 28.06 14 35.90
Tee Higgins 114 29 25.44 17 58.62
Gabriel Davis 106 26 24.53 8 30.77
Drake London 114 26 22.81 14 53.85
Terry McLaurin 115 26 22.61 17 65.38
A.J. Brown 142 31 21.83 15 48.39
Justin Jefferson 185 40 21.62 22 55.00
Michael Pittman Jr. 139 30 21.58 15 50.00
Amari Cooper 126 27 21.43 15 55.56
Mike Evans 133 28 21.05 18 64.29
Ja’Marr Chase 147 30 20.41 11 36.67
Davante Adams 168 34 20.24 15 44.12
DeVonta Smith 142 28 19.72 12 42.86
Chris Godwin 150 28 18.67 16 57.14
CeeDee Lamb 167 30 17.96 14 46.67
Stefon Diggs 166 26 15.66 12 46.15
Tyreek Hill 181 26 14.36 13 50.00

I don’t want to go so far as to say that it’s not sustainable, but you also don’t want a full third of your top receiver’s targets to be jump balls. Regardless of how good he is at jumping. The ideal is to get him more targets where he’s open.

That’s a complete team effort. Yes, Pickens has to continue to advance in his route running, picking up nuances that will allow him to create separation and running a more varied route tree that is less predictable.

But those routes also need to be called, and the ball must be delivered in ways that throw him open. He needs more in-breaking routes, and better timing on the vertical sideline throws will also help to reduce the percentage of his targets that ate jump balls.

Again, it’s not the number but the volume by the percentage of contested targets that makes me hesitate, just a bit. I fully anticipate that he will evolve as a route runner—he had one of the most uniform route trees in the entire league last season—and jump balls are frankly just going to be a part of his game because he can do it.

But you can make of the numbers what you will. Nobody caught a higher percentage of contested targets last season among qualifying receivers than Pickens did last year. But nobody in that group saw a higher percentage of targets that were contested either. Those are the facts. What they mean to you will vary.

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