George Pickens had a great rookie season, coming in second in receiving yards on the team, leading the team in touchdowns along with yards per reception and yards per target. When we look at the post-bye week numbers Pickens numbers are even better, and his 11.3 yards per target would be the 4th best mark for a Steelers receiver since Bill Cowher took over the team.
The other players in George Pickens’ ballpark in yards per target? Santonio Holmes, Mike Wallace, and JuJu Smith-Schuster. All three of those receivers had strong rookie seasons with high yards per target and turned that into a fantastic second season. Both Mike Wallace and JuJu Smith-Schuster had their best years in their second season, while Santonio Holmes won a Super Bowl MVP in his second season. All three of those receivers had a 1200+ yard season, but none of them were able to sustain that success.
Often times receivers that start strong and dominate early in their careers are receivers that have one or two great traits that transfer immediately to the NFL game. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hands and protecting the catch with his body, Santonio Holmes elusiveness and knack for making big catches, Mike Wallace’s speed and vision for space to attack, and with George Pickens, his body control and incredible contested catch ability,
The problem is those players often don’t develop much beyond those traits, and hit their ceiling early. George Pickens reminds me a lot of Mike Wallace in that both weren’t good route runners, and did their damage on deep routes.
George Pickens, for example, was targeted more on 20+ yard throws than on throws less than 10 yards downfield. And more than that, he posted one of the highest catch rates on deep passes and a very low catch rate on short routes compared to other NFL receivers. One of the problems the Steelers had getting George Pickens more involved in the offense was his route running that led to him being a poor option in shorter passes. I’m not talking about Antonio Brown level route running, I’m talking about the kind of consistency that is necessary for a quarterback to know where his receiver is going to be and when. When an out route is thrown with anticipation right before the receiver breaks, and that receiver rounds off the route and ends up three yards deeper than he should be, the throw isn’t going to be on target, because the target wasn’t where it was expected to be.
Steelers at Bengals, 3rd quarter, 10:43
George Pickens is the receiver to the top of the screen.
This is a great example from Week 1. Look at where Pickens starts his outside cut, and where he ends up coming back for the ball. It’s not a great pass from Mitch Trubisky, but it is intended for a receiver running an out route at the 26-yard line. Pickens rounds the route off and is almost to the 30 when he comes back to the throw.
There’s a lot of other mistakes in Pickens’ film, like this incomplete pass from Week 12:
Steelers vs. Colts, 2nd quarter, 1:05
George Pickens is the slot receiver third from the bottom of the screen.
There’s some good here, Pickens destroys the defender at the top of his route, giving just enough hint that he is going inside to pull the defender in and he burns him badly on his break. But as he cuts out Pickens slows down and has to speed up to try and catch up to the ball, and being slightly behind he ends up reaching for a one-hand catch that he can’t bring in this time and the Steelers would settle for a field goal. There’s so many parts to every pass play that it is hard to say for sure Pickens is in the wrong here, as Kenny Pickett could have led him slightly too far and Pickens had to accelerate to compensate, but with no defenders outside Pickett is right to place this ball toward the back pylon, and it is the receiver’s job to know where the ball is going to go on that throw.
And that’s the problem with rookie evaluations, so many things seem very fixable, and George Pickens is a bit of better route running and a bit more experience with his quarterback away from being a 1300 yard, 10 TD receiver. But at the same time, so was Mike Wallace and so was JuJu Smith-Schuster and so was Santonio Holmes, and all of them got there, or at least very close, but none of them sustained it.
Santonio Holmes had one season of great production, but his career was as marred by drops on easy throws as it was full of incredible plays. Mike Wallace couldn’t add enough other threats to his arsenal to keep teams from sitting on his deep routes. Teams figured out how to attack JuJu Smith Schuster from different angles and with a bit of speed lost from injury he hasn’t been able to get back to the big production of his first two seasons.
George Pickens is primed for a big season in 2023, he and Kenny Pickett will have much more experience working together and neither will be NFL rookies. But beyond that, for Pickens to sustain that excellence and reach the lofty heights his talent projects, he’s going to have to overcome the obstacles that has kept some other Steeler receivers from being truly great.