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The dangers of over-expectations of a first-round quarterback

Steelers fans haven’t had a quarterback selected in the first round in almost 20 years. Hopefully the unfamiliar territory doesn’t give them too high of immediate expectations.

2021 ACC Championship - Pittsburgh v Wake Forest Photo by Logan Whitton/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers and their dedicated fan base are in unfamiliar territory heading into the 2022 NFL season. Dating back to 2004, the Steelers had gone the fourth longest of any NFL franchise since they had drafted a quarterback in the first round of the NFL draft (Seattle in 1993, Dallas in 1989, and New Orleans in 1971). Being 18 years since Steelers fans had a quarterback drafted in the first round on the roster, what should they expect going into their rookie season?

After selecting quarterback Kenny Pickett out of the University of Pittsburgh in the 20th position of the 2022 NFL draft, there are many Steelers fans who expect him to be the starter Week 1 in September. There are a number of reasons behind this, some of which are valid in some of which are not. Let’s take a look at a few of these things to make sure they actually stand up to what is going on in the current NFL.

One justification of starting the rookie quarterback in Week 1 is because it is that more teams are starting quarterbacks right away. This actually is not the case. Going back 10 years (2012 to 2021), there have been 27 quarterbacks drafted in the top 20 of the NFL draft. In fact, they were all drafted in the top 16 because there were no quarterbacks taken between pick 17 and pick 21 over the last decade until the Steelers made Kenny Pickett the NFL‘s first-ever quarterback drafted in the 20th position. Of those 27 quarterbacks drafted in the first half of the first round, 13 of them were starters for Week 1 of their rookie season. Doing the simple math, that means 14 of those quarterbacks did not start right away. So based on those numbers, it’s pretty much 50-50 if a rookie quarterback is given the reins to start for their team at the beginning of the season when drafted in the top half of the NFL draft.

As for quarterbacks taken in the second half of the first round of the NFL draft over the last 10 seasons, there have only been six selected in that spot prior to 2022. Of those quarterbacks, only Brandon Weeden of the Cleveland Browns in 2012 started their team’s first game. Of the other five quarterbacks, four of them eventually started games their rookie season but did not begin the season doing so. The only exception was Jordan Love of the Green Bay Packers who did not appear in a game his rookie season.

In looking at Steelers history and how they handled their rookie quarterbacks who were first-round draft picks, there are only three players since 1970 to choose from. Terry Bradshaw started his first game in 1970 as the first overall pick of the NFL draft, but did not start every game of his rookie season. Mark Malone was the 28th overall pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1980 NFL draft and did not throw a pass in a game until 1981. The better standard for Steelers fans is Ben Roethlisberger, selected 11th overall in the 2004 NFL draft. Despite being such a high draft pick, Roethlisberger entered the 2004 season as the Steelers third quarterback. Roethlisberger was quickly moved up to the second position when Charlie Batch suffered a knee injury and was lost for the entire season. But even then Roethlisberger was the backup and did not start until the third game of his rookie year after coming off the bench in Week 2 due to the injury suffered by Tommy Maddox.

When comparing the Kenny Pickett situation to Ben Roethlisberger, some Steelers fans are ready to force Pickett into the starting lineup right away because of the quality of quarterbacks on the roster. While they believe this to be true, the two quarterbacks ahead of Roethlisberger his rookie season did not have winning records at that point in the NFL. Combined, Batch and Maddox had a record as starters of 32–44–1 while the current record of the quarterbacks on the Steelers 2022 roster of Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph have a combined record of 34–25–1. In other words, Trubisky and Rudolph have two more wins in 17 fewer games of the quarterbacks that still stayed ahead of Ben Roethlisberger on the depth chart his rookie season until injuries occured.

While some may want to argue about Kenny Pickett turning 24 years old this offseason and that he was deemed as the most “pro ready” quarterback of the 2022 NFL draft class, are these reasons to push Pickett into the starting lineup prematurely? First, the most “pro ready” quarterback only relates to those in the 2022 quarterback class. It’s not that Kenny Pickett was deemed the most “pro ready” quarterback in the NFL draft in the last 10 years. While this does give him an advantage of being prepared sooner, it shouldn’t necessarily force the issue. As for the age factor, quarterback is one of the few NFL positions where players can have an unusually long career. Whether Pickett would turn 34 or 35 after 10 years as a starter in the NFL isn’t overly significant at this time.

Yes, there is a large portion of the Steelers fan base who is very excited to see what Kenny Pickett can do at quarterback in 2022. While he will see action for sure during the preseason, for many that is simply not good enough and want to see him against the best other teams are offering. But is it necessary for the fans to know this right away? Or would it be better for the Steelers to not push Pickett into the starting lineup before they wish to do so?

I’m not saying Kenny Pickett shouldn’t be played in Week 1 his rookie season. I do question fans who have the expectation for Pickett to play right away. Let the preseason tell the story. If the Steelers choose to give him a little more time before being handed the reins, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Additionally, based on how first-round quarterbacks have been utilized in their rookie seasons over the last 10 years, it wouldn’t be that the Steelers are doing something out of the ordinary if they show some patience.