Quarterbacks are always center stage in today’s NFL, but the Week 1 matchup of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers features quarterbacks on both teams who will be in the spotlight even though each of their teams is looking to lean on the run game as much as the pass. That’s because both Kenny Pickett and Brock Purdy come into this season with a lot to prove.
Who will prove himself superior?
It’s an especially interesting question because the two players come from such different places. Kenny Pickett was the first quarterback selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. Purdy was the last. Pickett’s season, apart from a few flashes, left a lot to be desired. Purdy was acclaimed as a huge success. Despite the difference in their narratives, however, there’s not a huge difference between the two.
Purdy had a statistically better season in almost every respect, with his success getting the ball in the end zone being especially noteworthy. In context, however, Purdy’s superior production isn’t as glaring as it at first seems, and leaves plenty of room for argument that Pickett is the better quarterback. Not just that, but also that Pickett will have the better game in Week 1.
Everyone talks about Pickett’s early struggles with interceptions, while Purdy never had a multi-interception game and didn’t throw a single pick in the playoffs. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that Purdy’s regular season interception rate of 2.4% was actually higher than Pickett's at 2.3%.
Context makes a big difference too.
If you just count bad interceptions, taking out picks that went off their receivers’ hands, Hail Mary’s, or where the receiver tripped and fell, both players (weirdly) come out at 1.28% (and that’s including Purdy’s postseason stats as well). After watching film on Purdy, it seems like he narrowly avoided several more possible interceptions last year as well.
Taking care of the ball is critical but the other factor to highlight is that the 49ers didn’t really ask Purdy to do much more than that. Purdy attempted only 27.5 passes per game last year, and only 4 teams in the league averaged less. Additionally, his average depth of target was only 6.6 yards, which would’ve ranked 31st in the league, and is almost a full yard behind Kenny Pickett (and you thought the Steelers never threw deep). Now, it does have to be observed that numbers like that have been par for the course for the 49ers recently. They’re just not a downfield passing team, but it does show that Purdy was playing in a system that is all about easy throws.
Brock Purdy’s tape is scrappy.
Watching the film, you can see that Purdy is a scrappy player who does a solid job getting out of the pocket and finding one of his many outlet receivers. He can also work with quality timing from the pocket. What he can’t really do is drive the ball downfield, with lot of rainbows on deeper passes and even flat-out underthrown balls. His below-average arm strength makes taking care of the football a challenge, and that becomes an even bigger factor when you look not just at who was better last year, but who is going to be better this year, particularly in Week 1.
For one thing, Purdy is fresh off of Tommy John surgery, which doesn’t typically improve your game. Just the simple fact that that would’ve impaired his ability to train during the offseason puts him at a disadvantage compared to Pickett. Furthermore, if Purdy isn’t 100% physically and mentally recovered from the injury, he’s really behind the eight ball, given that he’s not a guy who has over-abundant athleticism to get away with playing at 95%. Heck, just last year in Week 1, the Steelers faced a vastly better quarterback in Joe Burrow, who wasn’t yet 100% following a ruptured appendix, throwing 4 INTs and a lost fumble in his return to play.
There’s also the hard evidence that Purdy has not shown the signs of growth and improvement in training camp and preseason that Pickett has. Training camp stats aren’t the ultimate deciding definition of who you are as a player, obviously. Still, while the media raves about Pickett’s offseason growth, the story for Purdy is whether or not his 10 interceptions over the course of training camp are something of concern.
At the very best, you have to admit it’s not a reason for optimism. At worst, it means that the Niners defense has figured him out, and other teams will likely be able to do so as well.
So, who’s going to have the better Week 1 — Pickett or Purdy?
All things considered, Purdy’s limitations are real, but at the same time he’s capable of doing well in a well-run West Coast system that emphasizes the run game over the pass, and the Steelers will do well to take him very seriously.
That said, defenses that didn’t take him seriously last year will do so this year. Elite ball-hawking defenses like the Steelers may cause him a lot of problems. Pickett isn’t the perfect quarterback either, and the 49ers defense is a tough matchup for anyone, but Pickett is the better quarterback and will have a better game in Week 1. Specifically, Purdy’s potential to turn over the ball over could be the key.