If the Pittsburgh Steelers want to establish themselves as legitimate playoff contenders in 2023 and beyond, they will need some of their talented young core to take the next step.
The Steelers are coming off an up-and-down 9-8 season, missing the playoffs by the slimmest of margins. Despite early struggles and a 3-7 start, the team rallied for a solid 6-1 record over its last seven games. It would be an understatement to say last year was a tale of two seasons.
Fans will be coming into the 2023 season with playoff expectations. One large reason for this is the expected development of second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett and wide receiver George Pickens. The Steelers used their top two draft picks last season on the duo, hoping the two would forge a connection in 2022 and beyond.
According to NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks, both Pickett and Pickens will take a step up in their second year in the league. He selected each to his 2023 all-breakout team and had a lot of positive things to say about Pickens.
“The second-round pick burst on the scene in 2022, piling up 51 catches for 801 yards and four touchdowns,” Brooks wrote. “Moreover, the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder displayed outstanding hand-eye coordination with a series of jaw-dropping, acrobatic catches that piqued the interest of the football world. With more playing time and an expanded role on the horizon, Pickens could enter the conversation as a top-10 receiver by the end of 2023. The Pickett-to-Pickens connection will have Terrible Towels waving for years to come.”
Pickens thrived in the Steelers’ offense last season and was one of the most impressive rookie wideouts last season in a loaded draft class. He ranked in the top five out of all rookies in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Pickens also made his mark in the Steelers’ record books, as he recorded the fifth-most receptions as a rookie receiver in team history.
These impressive statistics for Pickens last season all came with a very limited route tree, and limited yards after the catch. As the Georgia product gains more trust with this coaching staff, look for the Steelers to use him more creatively in 2023. Even towards the end of last season, the Steelers seemed to be looking for Pickens more, as he tallied an impressive 289 yards and two touchdowns over the final five weeks.
Pickett’s inclusion on the list isn’t much of a surprise, as he was also named a breakout candidate by Pro Football Focus. After finishing the year strong, he’s expected to take another leap in 2023 with more weapons and expected progression from his top targets, including Pickens.
As Pickens moves into year two, there will be no more questions about who will be throwing him the ball. Pickett will take the reins from the jump this season, the first of hopefully many full seasons that the Pickett-Pickens connection will see in Pittsburgh.