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What are realistic expectations for Kenny Pickett’s rookie year?

We know Pickett will open as Mitch Trubisky’s backup. Based on recent memory, however, he could see the field in no time.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

An explosion could almost have been felt within the Pittsburgh area when the Steelers announced their Week One depth chart on Monday: rookie quarterback and preseason sensation Kenny Pickett had been listed as the third-string QB, a move which defied all comments made by coaches and slotting of August action. All was (relatively) corrected, however, when the team updated its depth chart on Tuesday, slotting Pickett as QB2 behind Mitchell Trubisky.

The team’s opening two-deep confirms what was suspected before OTAs began: that Trubisky will begin the year as the Steelers’ starting quarterback, leaving the rookie on the bench. The question, of course, is for how long.

When can Steelers fans realistically expect Pickett to see his first taste of NFL action, let alone his first start? How might he fare statistically when he does see the field?

I collected data about rookie quarterbacks from the last six seasons (2016-21) in an effort to establish some historical bedrock for Pickett’s first pro campaign. Below are the conclusions.

When Pickett may first play/start

In the first portion of this piece, I’ll be examining when rookie quarterbacks have, in the last six years, made their debuts — not to mention analyze Pittsburgh’s schedule based on such information, but also what seems probable knowing Tomlin’s philosophy.

In the prior six seasons, a total of 23 quarterbacks have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft; from Paxton Lynch and Josh Rosen to Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert, the highly touted men under center have enjoyed varying degrees of success.

While only seven of the 23 were named starters before Week One, it is key to note that 22 of those 23 played at some point during their rookie seasons — only Packers first-rounder Jordan Love did not see a single snap. Further, all 22 did make a start at some point during their first campaigns.

Expanding to other rounds, there were 23 QBs selected from Rounds Two to Four in that same span, and 16 played. That figure is somewhat significant, as a quarterback taken outside of the top 32 is not traditionally considered apt to take the field promptly.

Inserted is a table of the 23 first-round gunslingers, providing a glimpse into their first games and their primary NFL starts.

2016-21 First-Round Rookie QB Games/Starts

Draft Year Name First Game (Game #) First Start (Game #)
Draft Year Name First Game (Game #) First Start (Game #)
2021 Trevor Lawrence 1 1
2021 Zach Wilson 1 1
2021 Trey Lance 1 5
2021 Justin Fields 1 3
2021 Mac Jones 1 1
2020 Joe Burrow 1 1
2020 Tua Tagovailoa 6 7
2020 Justin Herbert 2 2
2020 Jordan Love X X
2019 Kyler Murray 1 1
2019 Daniel Jones 1 3
2019 Dwayne Haskins 4 9
2018 Baker Mayfield 3 4
2018 Sam Darnold 1 1
2018 Josh Allen 1 2
2018 Josh Rosen 3 4
2018 Lamar Jackson 1 10
2017 Mitch Trubisky 5 5
2017 Patrick Mahomes 16 16
2017 Deshaun Watson 1 2
2016 Jared Goff 10 10
2016 Carson Wentz 1 1
2016 Paxton Lynch 4 5

On average, the first-round quarterbacks that played were involved in offensive snaps at Game Three, while their first starts occurred around Game Four (Game 4.27 to be exact). More broadly, 38 of the 46 QBs drafted in the first four rounds since 2016 have played; an average of those 38 yields a debut at Game 5.16 in year one. Moreover, 34 of the 46 started at an average of Game 5.68 (within the 34).

What do these numbers reflect? That not only is it very likely that Pickett will play and start at some point in 2022, but that both might happen by Week Six.

On Tuesday, Tomlin was not shy in praising Trubisky’s play and prior experience in leading a franchise to the postseason. Factoring in Trubisky’s veteran tenure and first-round allure, plus a presumptive desire not to rush Pickett into the lineup, it’s a safe bet that Trubisky will start for the Steelers through at least Week Six against the Buccaneers.

That doesn’t mean we couldn’t see Pickett beforehand, though. If Pittsburgh is in the midst of a blowout in Buffalo in Week Five, Tomlin could assuredly insert Pickett to get the Pitt product some NFL snaps. Likewise, if the Steelers have a subpar record entering Week Six and have showcased little offensive productivity that afternoon, Tomlin might feel inclined to turn to the newcomer to create a spark during an incredibly tough stretch of matchups.

Pickett’s inaugural start might not be much further down the road. On the surface, Week Seven at Miami may appear daunting for a rookie quarterback given the Sunday night atmosphere and a feisty Dolphins team. At the same time, Pickett seemed unflappable in the preseason; Tomlin might not have much hesitation in going to No. 8 if the team is in dire straits for a victory.

Additionally, a poor showing for Trubisky in Miami could open the door for Pickett in Week Eight at the Eagles. Such a game would grant Pickett a week of starting and the chance to reflect over the team’s bye week. Other options include Week 10 vs. the Saints, which is subsequent to the team’s bye, and Week 13 against the lowly Falcons.

Of course, this could all be for naught. If Trubisky succeeds or at least manages the offense well, Pickett may join Love in being a first-round QB to not play once in his rookie season. Considering Trubisky’s past play and the recent pattern regarding drafted quarterbacks, however, that feels unlikely.

Statistical expectations for Pickett

Assuming Pickett does play, data from the last six campaigns reveals that he may not light the world on fire.

Of the 22 first-round rookie signal-callers to suit up, only five threw for over 20 touchdowns, with the Patriots’ Mac Jones being the sole member of the 2021 crop to reach the feat a year ago.

If not producing gaudy scoring numbers, new quarterbacks must at least secure the ball and manage the game. Yet these QBs did not do exactly that: 12 of the 22 tossed 10 or more picks, and only eight had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 2-to-1 or better.

Utilizing more advanced stats, expected points added (EPA) per play determines how many expected points a quarterback contributes on a per-snap basis. 12 of the 22 quarterbacks had positive EPA/play metrics, meaning they theoretically added points every down. But just five of the 22 posted an EPA/play over .100; for context, that figure would have ranked 19th among quarterbacks to see 120 or more snaps last season.

The average passing statline for the 22 rookie quarterbacks was as follows: 61.16 completion %, 2,313.1 yards, 12.77 touchdowns, 9.09 interceptions.

Pickett had a tremendous preseason, completing 29 of 36 passes with 261 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 124.7 passer rating. Using the last six quarterback classes as a point of reference, it is almost a guarantee we will see the No. 20 overall pick under center (and start) this season, most likely around the midpoint of Pittsburgh’s year. When Pickett does play, though, he’ll have to avoid turnover miscues that have plagued many of his predecessors.