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The Steelers may have a star in receiver George Pickens, if they can keep him focused

George Pickens is as talented as they come, but can the Steelers keep him focused on the task at hand?

NCAA Football: Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl-Georgia vs Cincinnati Athens Herald Banner-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Steelers selected wide receiver George Pickens from the University of Georgia in the 2nd Round of the NFL draft, marking the fifth consecutive season they’ve taken a pass catcher with one of their top two picks.

With only Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool returning from their rotation, Pittsburgh had a need for a receiver. The Steelers also have Anthony Miller, a veteran signed off of waivers last season from Houston, and Miles Boykin, who was recently released by the Ravens. But they were determined to add a premium talent to the mix. They found one in Pickens, who, had it not been for a pre-season knee injury that cost him all but four games in 2021, would have likely been a 1st Round pick. The 6’3 Pickens has great ball skills and an elite ability to win in one-on-one situations. He is explosive after the catch, possesses toughness as a blocker, and is a nuanced route-runner.

Pickens also comes with concerns about his attitude and demeanor. He was suspended twice at Georgia, and his focus and concentration have at times been questioned. The Steelers drafted a player with a high ceiling who could become the steal of the 2nd Round. He could also become another receiver who didn’t fulfill his potential in Pittsburgh.

Here’s a closer look at Pickens, and at how he may fit with the Steelers.

Strengths

The thing that jumps out immediately about Pickens is his deep ball ability. Over his final 12 games at Georgia, Pickens caught 7 passes on throws of more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage for 246 yards, a whopping 35 yards per reception. Here is one of those, from the national championship against Alabama.

Pickens (#1) is split wide to the bottom of the screen at the start of the clip. He gets a clean release from the corner — something Pickens will abuse if afforded on a regular basis — then smartly keeps his post route to the inside of the hash . The muddle of moving parts in the backfield creates complicated play-action for the defense to diagnose, and with no safety to provide support, Pickens has a clean path to the football. He finishes the play with a beautiful over-the-shoulder grab:

I can’t emphasize enough how difficult this reception is. Pickens’ ability to follow the football as it disappears over his left shoulder is exceptional. The area from the crown of the helmet to the contact point at the hands is one of the most challenging to track a throw. Yet Pickens makes it look easy. He’s as natural gathering deep balls as any receiver in this draft.

Speaking of difficult, watch this beauty, with Pickens aligned to the bottom of the screen:

Cincinnati lines up in press coverage but comes with a corner blitz. They try to rotate the safety over to cover Pickens to the post. That won’t work — in college or the NFL. Pickens, again, is simply lethal if given space. As for the catch at the end, it underscores his ability to track the football and how well he uses his hands.

Pickens is also a solid route-runner who understands how to set up defenders to get open. Going back to his catch against Alabama, we see a great example of this. As Pickens crosses the 30-yard line, look at how he nods to the boundary to get the corner, who to that point is in good position on Pickens’ hip, to straighten up. The head nod suggests Pickens might make some sort of out-cut, so the corner balances to protect against it. This allows Pickens to break inside and gain separation:

On the next one, Pickens again uses leverage to create space for himself. Aligned at the top of the stack to the right of Georgia’s formation, Pickens attacks the leverage of the alley defender, forcing him to protect against an in-breaking route. Pickens then stems up field, and the alley follows. To separate, Pickens jabs inside just before making his break to the boundary. The alley falls off with the jab, giving Pickens room to operate:

Pickens can execute against zone coverage, too. Here, aligned in the right slot, he runs a perfect slant versus cover-2. I wrote in a recent film room on Miles Boykin about the difference in running slant against one versus two-high coverage. With a single safety occupying the middle of the field, receivers want to keep their slant “skinny,” or tighter to the post. Against two-high, a slant should be “fat,” which means he should come flatter out of his break and more towards the middle of the field, between the safeties. Pickens does just that, splitting the safeties for the score:

These are more nuanced routes than you typically see from college receivers, especially those who rely on speed to get open. The fact that Pickens uses speed in combination with technique makes him a dangerous player.

Finally, Pickens is a willing and physical blocker. Watch him here, split wide to the top of the formation, buckle the Cincinnati corner with a powerful two-hand strike to the chest. I love how Pickens gathers his feet on approach then uncoils his hips as he delivers the blow. This is like watching a good linebacker engage a guard at the point of attack:

This one displays pure effort from Pickens. Watch him come into the frame around the numbers at the 40-yard line and hustle to cut off the contain defender, springing the ball-carrier for extra yards. Blocking, for wide receivers, is often about effort. Pickens is a player who is consistently reliable in that area:

And then there are these two clips, which have been making the rounds on Twitter, where Pickens flat-out abuses the corner aligned over him. To say this young man is aggressive, as a blocker and otherwise, is an understatement:

Weaknesses

Let’s begin with temperament. Some say the allegations that Pickens is a hot head who can let his emotions get the best of him are overblown. This may be true. It’s hard to say, since accusations like these are often speculative. But his ejection from a 2019 contest against Georgia Tech for fighting with a Tech defensive back lend them credence.

We mentioned above that Pickens is an aggressive blocker. That aggression can have consequences if not directed properly. This was a contest where Georgia was winning handily at the time, yet Pickens could not constrain himself. His actions were both selfish, in that they hurt the team, and dangerous, considering punching an opponent in the helmet is a good way to break your hand:

To make things worse, Pickens had already missed the first half of this contest while serving a suspension for breaking an undisclosed team rule. The ejection then cost him the first half of the following week’s game, which was the SEC championship against LSU.

Pickens was just a freshman at the time, and it’s fair to expect he’s grown from the experience. Still, getting Pickens to play with discipline will undoubtedly be a focus of receivers coach Frisman Jackson.

On the field, the biggest challenge facing Pickens may involve freeing himself from press coverage. His slender build will make him susceptible to being bullied at the line of scrimmage by physical NFL corners. While he had success against press corners in college, many were afraid to be too aggressive for fear Pickens would run by them. NFL corners will have no such concerns, at least not initially.

One thing he can use to free himself is his quick first step. Watch here how Pickens, circled at the top, beats LSU’s highly rated Derek Stingley Jr with a great inside move followed by an outside burst. Although this is a run play, it shows that Pickens has the potential to neutralize corners at the line with his quickness:

How Pickens effects the Steelers’ passing game

Pickens will probably be used as the X receiver, lining up on the ball to the weak side of the formation. This will allow him to operate away from coverage strengths, where he should draw a decent amount of man-to-man.

Pickens should also become Pittsburgh’s top deep-ball threat. This is a role they tried to carve out for Chase Claypool last season. But Claypool, despite his 6’4 frame and excellent leaping ability, is largely a cradle-catcher, meaning he catches the ball against his body a lot, which is not conducive to winning contested throws. Pickens, conversely, uses his hands extremely well. He goes up and snatches the football, taking advantage of his long arms to create a huge catch radius. Combined with his speed and long stride, he should quickly become the best vertical threat on the roster.

This means Claypool, when the Steelers go 11 personnel with Pickens in the game, could be slotted more as the Z receiver. The Z generally plays off the ball to the tight end side, and, because he can move about the formation, is asked to do a variety of things. Last season, Claypool was largely reduced to “Go” routes and receiver screens. At the Z, he’ll be asked to run digs, crossing routes, comebacks, corners, and the Mesh and Dagger concepts the Steelers employ. Claypool has expressed a desire to run a more advanced route tree. With Pickens in the fold, it seems he’ll get his wish.

The Steelers will have some interesting options in the slot, too. Pickens played there in college at times, and Mike Tomlin indicated he may be used in that capacity. Diontae Johnson should see slot reps, too. Johnson is an exceptional route runner with great instincts for finding open areas in coverage. He’s a quick-twitch player, which makes him ideal for navigating cluttered spaces in the middle of the field. 4th Round draft pick Calvin Austin III is a burner who should see time there as well. Austin will be the jet sweep, bubble and gadget threat Canada loves in his offense. There’s also Miller, who was primarily a slot player when he caught 140 passes with the Bears between 2018-2020. And, when the Steelers go 12 personnel, Freiermuth has shown he can be effective as a detached tight end. Canada can get creative with his formations given all of these options.

I suspect, so long as his knee is healthy and he digests the playbook, Pickens will see the field quickly. He’s too dynamic a player, and too skilled a deep threat, to sit for long. The Steelers have suddenly become exciting in the passing game, and it may not be long before “Pickett to Pickens” is the most exciting element of all.