Since late July, one player across the 90 that began within the confines of the Steelers’ facility has shined brighter than the rest. No, not T.J. Watt or Minkah Fitzpatrick or Kenny Pickett.
Pickens, the must-see rookie during all of Pittsburgh’s stay in St. Vincent College, proliferated such success during his first taste of legitimate NFL action. Against the Seahawks last Saturday, Pickens hauled in a picturesque touchdown pass, adeptly tracking the ball and tapping his feet. The score was part of a three-catch, 43-yard day that featured a highlight-reel block and a stellar 91.2 Pro Football Focus grade.
Following the contest, a reservoir of bets pooled for Pickens to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Some pundits questioned if Pickens was already the Steelers’ top receiver, and if the team should explore trading Chase Claypool.
One week later, a dose of reality hit.
Taking the field in Jacksonville, Pickens saw only two targets. Though he caught both, he mustered only six receiving yards. The show-stopper didn’t generate any explosive plays or tenacious blocks — in fact, the opposite occurred when Pickens was flattened by former Georgia teammate Tyson Campbell.
For a bodacious, budding star like Pickens, Saturday’s outing may seem antithetical to the tone he wants to set entering his NFL career. Rather, such a game reflects the tenets of being a professional receiver.
The nature of a wideout is that success is contingent upon being thrown the ball. Frontline players like Davante Adams and Cooper Kupp will demand targets because they simply get open more than their offensive counterparts, but even they will post “down” statlines every once in a while.
A major takeaway for Pickens this week: it should not be expected to be the intended receiver on every play. Such is the case for all WRs, but especially in Matt Canada’s offense.
Though Pickens was Georgia’s top aerial weapon, he’s a member of a very crowded and skilled receiving room in Diontae Johnson, Claypool, Pat Freiermuth, Calvin Austin III and even Najee Harris. In spite of Pickens’ prowess, he still has a long way to go to supplant Johnson as the team’s WR1, something which very well might not transpire this year; moreover, Pittsburgh may not even have a designated top wideout given its depth and intentions to distribute the ball to playmakers.
Being a composite receiver, particularly in the Steelers’ offense, necessitates precision, attention to detail and relentlessness on every play, not just those to which a player is thrown. Pittsburgh was able to emerge victorious without major receiving contributions from Pickens, an indication of team-oriented success because of the rookie’s undeterred intensity.
Further, Campbell’s takedown of Pickens is noteworthy in and of itself. In many ways, it reflects the prototypical “Welcome to the NFL” moment. In Pickens’ case, it’s a stark reminder to avoid complacency and to prepare for stronger, more athletic and sharper players who embody a controlled violence. Simply learning how to tear oneself from the turf after what could be considered a mortifying play is crucial.
Those that have followed Pickens’ football career since its infancy rave about his raw skill from the day he stepped onto the gridiron. The Alabama native has basked in it all, earning a five-star rating out of high school and bursting onto the scene as one of the best wideouts in college football.
Of course, there have been hiccups along the way, including an ACL tear in 2021 and an ejection that led to missing the first half of the 2019 SEC Championship. Nevertheless, Pickens’ unique talent has skyrocketed him to the doorstep of NFL stardom.
In the pro ranks, pure ability yields little without accompanying attitude and technique. Just ask Mike Tomlin, who said this about Pickens before the preseason (via Steelers.com):
“He’s got talent, but there’s a difference between talent and skill. God gives them the talent; we develop the skill in settings like this relative to the positions that they play.”
Pickens commands eyes based on his acrobatic, gravity-defying plays paired with a bravado and near savagery. Such characteristics very well may garner record-breaking performances, but they also might lead to double-teams and little statistical production. There’s little doubt both will follow Pickens during his rookie campaign.
While Pickens didn’t exactly turn heads against the Jaguars, the game should be noted in his progression — if for nothing else but to demonstrate the ebbs and flows of being a rookie receiver, no matter pre-existing status.