With the Steelers’ 2023 offseason underway following a disappointing season that came up just short of reaching the playoffs, it’s time to begin reloading, through the free agency process, through the draft, and perhaps even through trade.
This is now a young team on the offensive side of the ball, though one getting older on defense, and both sides could stand to be supplemented robustly, including in the trenches—either one. Changes have been made to the coaching staff, even if not all of the desired ones, as the roster continues to renew with the weeks ticking by.
These sorts of uncertainties are what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
Topic Statement: George Pickens will be the Steelers’ next Pro Bowl wide receiver.
Explanation: The Steelers have the best reputation in the league for drafting wide receivers, though as time moves on, one wonders how much water Antonio Brown has carried for that. There have been a number of promising players who didn’t live up to their potential. Diontae Johnson made the Pro Bowl in 2021. George Pickens is expected to pass him as the team’s top receiver in 2023. But this isn’t a question about Pickens making the Pro Bowl specifically in 2023. It’s whether or not he will be the next Steelers wide receiver to make the Pro Bowl for the first time.
Outside of injury or something like that, the only thing that could prevent George Pickens from developing into a Pro Bowl-recognized wide receiver is insufficient quarterback play. But even with the level of play out of the position last year, he was still the favored target for success from Kenny Pickett.
Pickett should be a lot better this season with a much better system around him, with more time to throw, and an offense better equipped to take shots down the field. Pickens, meanwhile, should have a more robust route tree. Assuming he’s hard at work this offseason, we should find him better able to create separation and produce open targets. That means more catches, more numbers, more highlights, more attention. More Pro Bowl votes. He is already in the spotlight. They’re just waiting for the results to crown him.
Here’s one thing to consider. Nobody had more success fielding contested catches last season than George Pickens did last season, and he also had among the highest rates of contested targets. In and of itself, that’s great. But it also means that either he can’t get open, or they can’t find him when he’s open.
And the odds of him continuing to surpass the field in contested catch success are low. Jump balls are not a recipe for sustained success, and Pickens hasn’t shown that he has the sort of polish in his game to become a more well-rounded target. Absent elite quarterback play, and in an era so robust with wide receiver talent, it’s hard to see how that translates into a Pro Bowl. After all, we’re oohing and aahing over 801 yards and four touchdowns. Yeah, some of those catches were really cool looking. But being great is about the down-to-down performance, not a couple of snaps per game.
With the way Pittsburgh has been cycling through receivers for the past decade, there’s no reason anybody should be surprised if Pickens is not the next Pro Bowler. How many thought that would be Chase Claypool? Or Martavis Bryant? On draft day, who might have thought that of Sammie Coates? Or Markus Wheaton? Or James Washington? And where are any of them now? It might be a while before they find another Pro Bowler.