Kenny Pickett reflects on rookie year, draft night stories and goals for 2023

When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected quarterback Kenny Pickett at No. 20 overall in the 2022 NFL Draft, it had everyone saying, “Of course.” After all, Pickett was coming off a prolific season for the University of Pittsburgh in which he broke Dan Marino’s school passing touchdown record in the very stadium he would call home in the NFL.

Quarterback was the Steelers' top need, making it an obvious choice for the franchise. Well, obvious to everyone except Pickett himself.

“It was actually the complete opposite,” Pickett said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “They talked to me the least [during the draft process]. It was actually very minimum compared to other teams.”

The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers were among the teams he spent a lot of time talking to ahead of the draft, teams he felt could grab him before Pittsburgh at No. 20. When it came to the Steelers, Pickett said he met with them for 15 minutes at the Senior Bowl, didn't meet at the combine and then visited with them for maybe 20 minutes after that. In total, he spent less than an hour with Pittsburgh throughout the draft process.

But he did have a feeling that if he was still on the board when the Steelers were on the clock, he wouldn’t have to wait much longer to see his phone ring. And when the caller ID lit up with Pittsburgh on the other end, he almost lost it in his emotional joy.

“[After they drafted me], they said they already knew everything they needed to know,” Pickett said. “You couldn’t write a better story for me getting to stay home and having the opportunity I had this year.”

The hometown hero didn’t get the starting nod for Week 1 of the 2022 season, but that was never the plan. Though the Steelers are all about competition and letting the best players play, there was no pressure on their first-round pick to immediately step into the spotlight.

But Pickett didn't wait in the wings for long. After an anemic offensive start to the season with Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback, the Steelers made the move to Pickett during the second half of the New York Jets game in Week 4. Pickett finished the outing 10-for-13 on his 16 dropbacks for 120 passing yards. He did have three interceptions, but none of them were categorized as true turnover-worthy plays in PFF’s database. That shows up in his 84.6% adjusted completion percentage for the game.

Despite the three turnovers on the stat sheet and not coming away with the win (though he did have a Hail Mary chance at the end), Pickett looked back on that moment and that game as the moment he truly believed he could hang in the pros.

“I knew [the Jets] had a really good defense, really talented secondary, really good up front,” Pickett said. “But I felt like I was playing well. I know the three picks don't show it. But I was hanging in there making some throws. But I had this feeling that I could do it. If this is where I was starting, after not playing [as the starter] in our system for five weeks, I knew I was just going to keep getting better and better.”

Pickett finished the 2022 season as a top-three rookie quarterback in most categories. He posted a 79.6 overall grade (second), a 75.9 passing grade (third), a 78.2 rushing grade (first), 18 big-time throws (first) and a 73.3% adjusted completion percentage (third). And from Week 12 on among all quarterbacks, the only one with a higher passing grade than Pickett’s 88.5 mark was the Cincinnati BengalsJoe Burrow.

Ending the season strong was important to Pickett, allowing him to reflect on a lot of lessons learned.

“Out of 10 throws, you’re probably only throwing in rhythm three times out of 10,” Pickett said. “The pocket is always hot with how great these pass rushers are. The speed of the game is more mental. I’m learning a new system, I’m seeing new things from the defense. Learning new coverages, fronts, structures. Guys are obviously bigger, faster and stronger, but it just takes time and reps. Everyone wants to go in there and light it up, but sometimes it just takes some time to play and get your feet under you, and then you see those jumps and improvements week by week.”

Never making the same mistake twice became Pickett’s goal as the year went on. The more snaps he got, the more comfortable he was in Matt Canada’s offensive system. For as much as he believed in his own work ethic, he credits his quarterbacks coach, Mike Sullivan, as well as the team's other quarterbacks, Trubisky and Mason Rudolph, for helping him continue to progress. He also noted that his journey at Pitt aided his first year with the Steelers in more ways than just staying close to home.

“There’s highs and lows,” Pickett said. “I was grateful for my experience at Pitt. I wasn’t lighting it up like I was my last year during my first couple years. Having those moments of adversity prepared me for the NFL. It allowed me to not waver too much because I’ve been there before. I knew I was going to work my ass off to get where I wanted to get to.”

Pickett went a respectable 7-5 as a starting quarterback in 2022. But much like his head coach, he’s not satisfied just being above .500. The Steelers were 2-6 heading into their Week 9 bye week. Instead of taking the free time to leave town, Pickett remained in Pittsburgh to make sure he didn’t lose any focus on the opportunity in front of him for the second half of the season. The Steelers went on to finish the season 9-8 with a chance at the playoffs at the end.

As for what’s next for Pickett after a strong finish to his rookie campaign, it’s not a passing total, a touchdown mark or an individual award. It’s one word. 

“My goals are to win,” Pickett said. “I don’t care how it gets done, what needs to be done. I’m not going to give you a number of what I’m aiming for. It’s just to go out there and win.”


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