It's amazing what a few one-handed circus catches on nationally televised games can do for your perception around the league.
This fanpost was mostly conceived after noted Football Insider (trademark pending and under constant review) Mike Florio stated that the only conceivable way the Steelers aren't finding more ways to get Pickens the ball is due to the fact that, "..They don't know what they have or... they want to avoid creating a contractual monster with George Pickens because they would if they used him to his full extent."
Now - this post isn't about bashing Michael Florio. This post is about a reality check for both the Steelers fandom and national news at large (of which it goes without saying that noted BTSC Fanpost author Cdoubled's opinions on these matters surely must be taken seriously at the national scale) - that George Pickens is what he is: a talented second year wide receiver who has not shown any ability to be a number one receiving threat.
His numbers are solid. He's got all the athleticism in the world. He's got a good rapport with Kenny Pickett. He's got a great catch radius. Here's the rub - there are lots of receivers in the NFL that have these tools. George Pickens is among his peers in the NFL. He's not standing above them. His production doesn't show that. It's all projected hype and hopes - the kind that we of course expect as fans of the Steelers but an entirely unearned reputation outside of these inner circles. Pickens may one day achieve that level. But he hasn't shown an ability to create play-to-play separation, an ability to read defenses and find soft spots in a zone, nor a connection with the QB or the offense to consistently put up catches and statistics.
Last year, George Pickens was a dynamic number 2 receiver on an absolutely abhorrent offense for the first half of the year and benefitted tremendously from a much more chemistry-laden, run based offense that forced safeties and linebackers to respect our running game. With Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth taking up the attention of the coverage safeties and backers George was able to eat pretty well! To the tune of a 2022 statline of 52 receptions, 801 yards and 4 touchdowns. These are really, really solid numbers and inline with what you'd hope a number 2 receiver could provide, aside from lacking touchdowns. Among qualified receivers (including TEs) There were 37 more receivers with more yards, 50 with more touchdowns, and 71 with more receptions. Again - solid numbers and inline with expectations of a number 2 receiver.
A fair expectation for Pickens would have been for him to continue his climb to be a more dependable and dynamic number 2 receiver, with a hopefully increased statline across all receiving metrics. Something close to 900 yards, 55-65 receptions and a few more touchdowns.
After a few national games last year where George Pickens made some Odell Beckham-reminiscent catches however, the narrative shifted. Suddenly, George Pickens is one of the most talented or athletically gifted receivers in the world. Suddenly, he's this absolute monster ready to be unleashed. Suddenly, he should be the staple of any offense and the ball absolutely needs to be in his hands. And so many among the fandom and national media see something that I'm just not seeing. His route tree expanded so far in 2023 from Gos, Curls, and Drags last year to a more diverse route tree including Posts as seen against Cleveland. He struggles to meaningfully separate from coverage and relies a lot of circus and contested catches for his yardage.
The ability to make contested catches and circus catches is great! It's an amazing comfort as a QB that you feel like if you throw a ball high and far enough that your receiver can make a play. Ward. Crabtree. Players like that feasted on contested catches. But again - those players did that down after down. Pickens has not shown the ability to do it more than a few times a game.
There are high ceiling players across the NFL. To even make it on a roster in itself validates that you are a top percentile athlete. But when everyone around you is of similar percentile it takes a special kind of once-in-a-generation talent to stand above them. TJ Watt, for example. Whether you look at his advanced stats or the eye test, every play Watt is in he is dynamic and demands attention.
Where was George Pickens in week 1? Where was he outside of his 71 yard play? If he has all these gifts that others see, where do they show up? Is it only in catch radius and circus catches?
The reason Hines Ward didn't have to make one handed catches is because he was open. And yes, being open is just as much on the QB as it is on the WR. But Calvin Johnson was still Calvin Johnson without Stafford. And Pickens has been a really good guy for the Steelers.
But is he this absolute monster of a WR that the national media paints him as? I don't believe so. I hope he gets there! But right now in 2023 he's a very talented young WR2, maybe even WR1. Not a Justin Jefferson. And it's disrespectful to Justin Jefferson that they're compared in any way. When every shifty, sub-six foot receiver was compared to Antonio Brown in the glory days of the Killer Bs we all got annoyed - it'd be hypocritical to do so in the inverse.
George Pickens is a very talented young WR2 with WR1 Potential - one of many in the NFL (Drake London, Chris Olave, Garret Wilson, Brandon Aiyuk just to list off a few). But he needs a lot more seasoning to get there as an individual - never mind how much work the pieces around him need to gel before he sniffs WR1 levels of production.