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Steelers must take advantage of the time left on Kenny Pickett’s rookie contract

If Pickett can quickly become an above-average QB, the Steelers should have a huge advantage over the other contending teams in the AFC.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) makes his way to the field before playing the Cleveland Browns at Acrisure Stadium Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback contracts are getting out of control.

12 NFL quarterbacks are on a current contract worth $40+ million a year, including four who are now making $50+ a year. Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson and Justin Herbert each took turns this offseason receiving the largest contracts in NFL history (in terms of APY), and we can also assume Joe Burrow will be cashing in on a record-breaking extension any day now.

With that, quarterbacks on rookie deals are becoming more and more advantageous with each massive contract handed out. Kenny Pickett’s season cap hit ranges from just $3 to 4.5 million over the next three years. If Pickett can quickly become an above-average QB, the Steelers should have a huge advantage over the other contending teams in the AFC, in terms of their ability to build a loaded roster around the quarterback.

The question that needs to be asked is have the Steelers done enough this offseason to ensure Pickett has all the pieces around him necessary to excel in the early stages of his rookie deal?

The Steelers have put together a solid group of offensive weapons for Pickett to target, plus they have upgraded pieces of the offensive line... but is that enough considering Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada is still in town?

Pittsburgh’s offensive weapons

Pittsburgh has a strong group of pass-catching weapons with WRs Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, and Allen Robinson, plus TE Pat Freiermuth and RB Najee Harris. Although this is a very solid group on paper, there isn’t necessarily a clear-cut elite receiver on the roster. Patrick Mahomes has Travis Kelce, Josh Allen has Stefon Diggs, Joe Burrow has Ja’Marr Chase, Tua Tagovailoa has Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle... Pickett on the other hand is lacking that elite weapon that can destroy an opposing defense on any given play.

Diontae Johnson is one of the best route runners in the NFL, but his ceiling is limited in terms of athleticism and the ability to create big plays down the field (at least under Matt Canada). Allen Robinson is an aging receiver who has struggled to create space against corners for a couple of seasons now. The hope lies with George Pickens becoming a star in year two. Pickens impressed with his contested catch ability last season, pulling in the third-most contested receptions (19) in the NFL, fewer than only Justin Jefferson (22) and D.K. Metcalf (20). Pickens also led the team with four receiving touchdowns last season — he was the only Steelers wide with multiple touchdowns.

Steelers offensive line upgrades

Over the last two offseasons, the Steelers have worked on significantly upgrading their offensive line. They signed starting right guard James Daniels and center Mason Cole in 2022 free agency and left guard Isaac Seumalo in 2023 free agency, and then also traded up in the first round of the 2023 NFL draft to grab Georgia tackle Broderick Jones.

The hope is that Broderick Jones will win the starting left tackle job over Dan Moore Jr., who allowed a team-high seven sacks last season per PFF. Seumalo was signed to a 3-year, $24 million contract this offseason to take over the starting left guard role from Kevin Dotson, who allowed four sacks and earned just a 65.4 PFF grade in 2022.

The Steelers still need starting RT Chukwuma Okorafor to step up his game and be more consistent after receiving a three-year contract extension last offseason, but overall, Pittsburgh has put together a solid group of starting offensive linemen (at least on paper) to block for Pickett.

The Matt Canada offense

Matt Canada somehow made it through the offseason with his job and will be entering his third season as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. Pittsburgh has averaged just 19.2 points per game (26th in NFL) and a pitiful 4.9 yards per play (31st NFL) over their two seasons under Canada.

In that span, it’s been clear that Canada must find a way to give his talented playmakers more space after the catch; no team averaged fewer yards after catch per reception than the Steelers in 2022. Per Next Gen Stats, they led the NFL with 44 tight window receptions (less than 1 yard of separation) and 25 boundary targets (within 2 yards of the sideline) last season. In order for this offense to take a step forward, Canada needs to get way more creative in order to free up receivers and also use the middle of the field more often.

If Canada wastes another year of Pickett’s rookie season with terrible playcalling, Mike Tomlin is to blame for not moving on from him sooner. The Steelers shouldn’t just be relying on the defense and for Pickett to be a game-manager this season. That isn’t going to get it done in a loaded AFC with a plethora of top-notch offenses.