Pittsburgh Steelers Rookies Forecast

By Charlie Campbell – @draftcampbell

Solid Starter

Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh – Round 1
For a lot of the 2022 NFL Draft process, I was higher on Pickett than most evaluators and felt he could be a Derek Carr-caliber starting quarterback in the NFL. Carr has produced playoff teams and solid play despite an inconsistent supporting cast. Thus, I think Pickett will be a quality starter if he has support around him. The Steelers were a good landing spot with a talented receiving corps, a good running back, and a tough defense.

Pickett (6-3, 220) has the skill set to be a pocket-passing quarterback in the NFL. The most important trait for any pro quarterback is accuracy, and Pickett definitely has that as one of his biggest strengths. He is a very accurate passer who can beat good coverage with the placement of his passes. He is able to fit the ball into tight windows and does a superb job of hitting his receivers on the run to lead them for more yards. With his quality arm strength, Pickett can fire fastballs into tight windows and also is able to drive the ball vertically downfield. Pickett throws a beautiful deep ball, and his accuracy with it is phenomenal.

Pickett is very adept at putting air underneath the ball to loft in his throws downfield. Coming from a pro-style system under Mark Whipple, Pickett has advanced field vision to work through his progressions and read defenses. He mastered the offense and knew where his receivers were going to be. With his field vision and intelligence, Pickett consistently made good decisions and demonstrated the ball security to avoid turnovers. However, there were two or three throws a game where he’d make bad throws thanks to a gunslinger mentality popping up.

Pickett shows excellent timing to go with his ball placement to lead his receivers for yards after the catch. On top of his accuracy, throws a very catchable ball and makes things easy for his receivers with his loft and touch to drop passes in to his receivers. Pickett has composure and is comfort in the pocket with the ability to handle the rush without getting rattled. Pickett is a rhythm thrower who is a great fit for a West Coast passing offense.

An added element to his game that makes him more dangerous and effective is his mobility. Pickett does a good job of using his feet when plays break down or nothing is open downfield. He has the quickness and athleticism to dodge pass rushers and can rip off yards in chunks because defenses often sleep on his running ability. Pickett is also very wise about when he runs and does not look to run when his first read is covered.

The accuracy and precision of his passes extends to when Pickett is on the run, as he does a nice job of placing his passes when his feet aren’t set. His feet come into play when he has to avoid a sack or nothing is open downfield. Pickett is able to extend plays and does an excellent job of keeping his eyes downfield when he runs. Designed runs from Pickett produced some nice plays for the Panthers, but the Steelers will want be careful and selective about doing that to protect him from injury.

Pickett has a starter’s skill set with size, arm talent, and mobility. He also drew rave reviews for work ethic, leadership, and character.

While Pickett may not have an elite skill set like a Pat Mahomes or Deshaun Watson, Pickett is a well-rounded player who is a true competitor. I think he could easily turn into a solid starter for Pittsburgh.

2021: Dan Moore, OT
2020: Alex Highsmith, OLB
2019: Diontae Johnson, WR
2018: James Washington, WR
2017: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR
2016: Artie Burns, CB
2015: Sammie Coates, WR
2014: Stephon Tuitt, DE
2013: Markus Wheaton, WR

Most Likely To Bust

DeMarvin Leal, DT, Texas A&M – Round 3
After taking headliners for their passing attack for many years to come in the first two rounds, the Steelers added some defensive line help with Leal in the third round. Leal has a good skill set and shows interior rush ability. He also is instinctive as a run defender, but Leal really struggled to hold his ground against college guards, who were able to get a push on him. He has a bad body and a serious lack of power.

Early on in the process, there were some projections of Leal as a high first-rounder, but teams did not see him there. Last spring, an area scout told WalterFootball.com:

“I have some concerns with Leal,” said an area scout last spring. “He’s really a three-technique who thinks he’s a defensive end. The interior stuff isn’t great though, which bothers me with the vision as to how productive a pro he’ll be. Leal got walked like a dog versus Alabama playing inside. He similarly sees himself as a 4-3 defensive end. He doesn’t want to play inside. That’s the knock. He’ll do it, but mentality wise, he doesn’t see himself there. Those guys always struggle in the league because that’s where he’s going to have to make his money. He’s not explosive or powerful enough to stand on the edge. Cam Jordan is his size and a hell of a lot longer, more violent, and was a 4.69 guy at that size. Leal is really a 1.5-year producer.”

In the AFC North, defending the run is a necessity for an interior defensive lineman. With division opponents featuring running threats like Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt, J.K. Dobbins and running quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Joe Burrow, Leal’s run-defense issues could keep him stuck on the bench. Of Pittsburgh’s early-round picks, Leal looks like the most risky to be a potential bust.

2021: Pat Freiermuth, TE
2020: Anthony McFarland, RB
2019: Justin Layne, CB
2018: Mason Rudolph, QB
2017: James Conner, RB
2016: Sean Davis, CB/S
2015: Senquez Golson, CB
2014: Dri Archer, RB/WR
2013: Le’Veon Bell, RB

Potential Boom Pick

George Pickens, WR, Georgia – Round 2
Over the excellent run of retiring general manager Kevin Colbertt, the Steelers nailed draft picks on wide receivers on Days 2 and 3 of the NFL drafts. They landed steals like Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Diontae Johnson, to name just a few. Pickens and fourth-round pick Calvin Austin III could keep that trend going as the Steelers transition to a new general manager. Both are playmakers, and Pickens has real boom-pick potential.

Pickens (6-2, 200) has the potential to be a lead No. 1 receiver in the NFL. He is a linear wideout who makes plays downfield and has deceptive speed for a receiver with size. Pickens is very good at making contested catches over defensive backs, utilizing impressive body control, agility, and strong hands. With his leaping ability and body control, Pickens could be a real weapon on the sideline. He has good speed, but isn’t a burner who is going to be a threat to score on any reception like a Jaylen Waddle. Pickens may not be a wide receiver who is constantly creating separation, but he should be pretty capable of getting open going against NFL defensive backs.

If it weren’t for off-the-field issues, Pickens probably would have been a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Steelers have the culture to handle Pickens and help him mature. He could be a real boom pick for Pittsburgh and carry on the tradition established by Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace.

2021: Najee Harris, RB
2020: Chase Claypool, WR
2019: Devin Bush, LB
2018: Terrell Edmunds, S
2017: T.J. Watt, LB
2016: Javon Hargrave, DT
2015: Bud Dupree, LB
2014: Ryan Shazier, LB
2013: Jarvis Jones, LB

Future Depth Player

Calvin Austin III, WR, Memphis – Round 4
Austin could easily have been a second-day pick because he was one of the fastest and most explosive playmakers in the 2022 NFL Draft. While Austin is undersized, he is a threat to score on any touch of the ball due to his elite speed and explosive first-step. Pittsburgh has its top three receivers set with Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and George Pickens, but Austin could be an excellent rotational fourth or fifth receiver. He could provide good depth for injuries while also providing a playmaking spark off the bench. The Steelers landed a really nice value with Austin in the fourth round.

2021: Quincy Roche, OLB
2020: Kevin Dotson, G
2019: Benny Snell, RB
2018: Jaylen Samuels, RB
2017: Cam Sutton, CB
2016: Tyler Matakevich, LB
2015: Doran Grant, CB
2014: Wesley Johnson, OT
2013: Shamarko Thomas, S

Walt’s 2022 NFL Draft Grades:

20. Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh – D- Grade
I have to wonder if the owners called this one in because they regretted passing on another Pittsburgh quarterback, Dan Marino, back in the early 80s. This makes no sense otherwise. Pickett didn’t generate any interest from anyone else in the first round, and he doesn’t have the mobility the Steelers want from the position. He’ll also have massive fumbling problems with his small hands once the calendar flips to December and January. Yuck.

52. George Pickens, WR, Georgia – A- Grade
I have to wonder how Kenny Pickett will have any sort of time in the pocket. Receiver wasn’t a big need for the Steelers, but they lost JuJu Smith-Schuster this offseason, so I understand it. Pickens is a top 15-caliber talent, but some major character issues have sunk him. He’s a great value here, so I like this pick.

84. DeMarvin Leal, DE/DT, Texas A&M – A Grade
Everyone knows the Steelers needed to bolster their offensive line, but they also had to add to their defensive front as well. The Steelers have an old defensive line, so they really needed to get younger there, especially after they were steamrolled each week. I had Leal going to the Steelers in the second round, so I love this value.

138. Calvin Austin, WR/KR, Memphis – A- Grade
I’m surprised Calvin Austin lasted this long, as I’ve had him in the third round consistently. He’s a very small receiver, but he’s incredibly fast and explosive. Given the receiving talent already on Pittsburgh’s roster, Austin will likely settle in as the return specialist.

208. Connor Heyward, FB, Michigan State – B Grade
A fullback was drafted. Huzzah! Connor Heyward is actually the brother of long-time Steeler Cameron Heyward. He’ll help in the running game, which will be crucial because the Steelers have dubious play at quarterback.

225. Mark Robinson, LB, Ole Miss – B Grade
I pegged Mark robinson in the seventh round, so he makes sense as the Steelers’ 225th-overall pick. Robinson can provide some much-needed depth the Steelers currently lack at linebacker at the moment.

241. Chris Oladokun, QB, South Dakota State – B Grade
A quarterback to challenge Kenny Pickett once he begins fumbling a dozen times per game. I’m kidding, well, sort of. Chris Oladokun projects as a possible No. 2 quarterback in the NFL, and I thought he could go a bit earlier than this. It might be difficult for him to make the final roster though.

2022 NFL Draft Team Grade: C. Follow Walter @walterfootball for updates.

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