Analysis

Kenny Pickett Checking Many Boxes For NFL Starter, Except The Most Important One

Kenny Pickett

Watching Kenny Pickett over the last month has been a roller-coaster ride for Pittsburgh Steelers fans, coaches, and those of us who love to study the game.

During the last three weeks, the casual observer can see that Pickett can play at a very high level in the NFL. But there’s still plenty of work to be done. He has elite arm talent, a quick and confident release to make every throw, and the athleticism to extend plays with his legs. But at times, Pickett will make ill-advised throws and miss open receivers.

Pickett has averaged 36 pass attempts over the last three weeks, completing just 61% of his throws and under 60% in two of the three games. Despite that heavy workload, he’s had limited overall production, with only one touchdown pass thrown. While his completion percentage has been barely average by NFL standards across that recent stretch, he’s done a good job of taking care of the ball with only one interception and one fumble lost.

Looking closely at the tape, Pickett is fun to watch. It is apparent from the TV copy his teammates are drawn to his energy, and Mike Tomlin is taking an interesting approach with his young quarterback.

Unlike the Giants with Daniel Jones, the Jets with Zach Wilson, or other teams with young and developing quarterbacks, Tomlin has not held back, allowing Pickett to “participate” in the game rather than simply manage it.

The Steelers are not running the football to minimize Pickett’s throwing opportunities and putting it on the defense to keep the games close in the fourth quarter like so many teams with young QBs appear to do. Instead, they are airing it out and allowing him to grow as a quarterback now, not waiting until next year. Both the numbers and the tape suggest that this is true. Pittsburgh has gone all in on Pickett by aggressively throwing the ball in all quarters, field positions, and down-and-distance situations.

As Pickett would likely tell you, the numbers have simply not been good enough. But the fact that he has taken care of the football (for the most part) over the last three games is validating and the first step to gaining the trust of his teammates and coaches. Protecting the football is the QB’s No. 1 job.

Unlike many of the ill-advised and sometimes reckless throws that young quarterbacks make in their rookie seasons, Pickett’s willingness to be more selective and mindful in his decision-making makes a further examination worthwhile.

Let’s break it down by looking at the following areas:

1. Arm talent

Pickett can make all the throws. He has the ability and understands the nuances of changing his velocity based on receivers’ depths and widths.

Kenny Pickett

On this fourth-quarter throw to George Pickens (above), Pickett illustrates his ability to go deep by electing to take the go route versus man-to-man coverage on third-and-4, delivering it perfectly (below). With a wide athletic base, upward tilt of the left shoulder, and powerful stride, he can use the entire width and length of the field of any of the league’s great QBs.

2. Accuracy

This is arguably the most important asset a quarterback must have to play in the NFL. This is one area that Pickett needs to improve upon. It took him until his senior year to prove he was accurate. (67%) At times, he is impeccably accurate, while at other times, there are inexcusable misses.

On this play last Sunday night against the Bengals, Pickett delivers the ball to the outside digit of Pat Freiermuth with a clean pocket (above). This ball was thrown between two Bengal defenders but precisely away from the nearest defender, #33. This is the difference between a well-located throw and precise accuracy that allows a receiver to maximize the run after catch.

There is evidence validated by the tape that he can be a high percentage and predominantly accurate passer in the future. But the evidence below shows that there is work to be done.

The picture above is only one of several plays over the last three weeks where Pickett has missed wide-open receivers with a clean pocket. Here he throws high and away from Najee Harris in the open field.

Here, with a wide-open pocket to complete a throwing motion, Pickett misses Freiermuth over the middle (above).

On the first play of the Saints game, with excellent protection and a clear sight line to Pickens, Pickett throws behind the receiver (above). With such pure passing fundamentals and more work on the field with receivers, and a better understanding of the system, I am hopeful we will soon see dramatic improvement.

Against one-on-one coverage, Pickett overthrows Dionte Johnson and does not allow him to make a play on the ball (above).

As excited as I am about Pickett’s future, this is an area of improvement that will be key to his overall success in Pittsburgh. He must make these throws.

3. Throwing Mechanics

Pickett has tremendous throwing mechanics that start with quick and nimble footwork, ideal staging of the football, a great base, and a quick release to get the ball up and out.

Kenny Pickett

This is an example of a great throwing base, with feet shoulder-width apart, knees and hips bent in an athletic position, and the ball staged perfectly with the tip of the ball at the ‘V’ of the neck, enabling him to get the ball up and out quickly, and enhance accuracy (above).

Kenny Pickett

This is a classic look at the start of a precise throwing motion with his left foot open just in front of the target, which allows him to fully open his hips to the target. With his throwing elbow shoulder high, left arm pulling down, and forcing his chest out, his power is created (above).

Kenny Pickett

Because of the pocket that he is provided and the ability to complete his throwing motion, his right arm moves to his left side, and his right shoulder leads to the target (above).

Altogether, this is a picture-perfect throwing motion and the formula for an accurate throw.

4. Functional Intelligence

The ability to slow the game down, respond in the chaos of the game, keep his composure, and make plays.

With pressure in his face and falling backward, Pickett manages the chaos by throwing off his back foot and leading Pickens into the end zone for his only touchdown pass over the last three games. This is an elite throw under extreme circumstances.

Here’s how it looked in real-time:

5. Ability to extend plays

Pickett has excellent feet and sufficient speed. He certainly is not Justin Fields or Lamar Jackson, but he can move to create plays with his arm and legs. Over the last three games, he has gained almost 100 yards and showed the ability to think pass first before he pulls the ball down.

In this picture above, Pickett has just climbed and exited the pocket. With his eyes upfield and an understanding of where the line of scrimmage is, he delivers perfectly to Freiermuth.

6. Mental and physical toughness

This young man is tough. His eyes are up, and he will stand in there and take a hit to make a throw. There is no question that plays like this create respect from teammates and coaches (below).

He not only stands in there to deliver but accurately completes the ball (below).

7. Inherent Pocket Awareness

Pickett has the inherent ability to move in the pocket to find the quiet area to throw, but there is work to be done in understanding protection and responding to different pressures. This is something he will gain with experience.

Kenny Pickett

In this picture above, Pickett is looking to the right, unaware that he is ‘hot’ to his left versus the Bengals’ blitz zone.

In the picture below, you can see the two rushers from his left come free and tight end Zach Gentry wide open at the top of the screen to receive the hot throw.

8. Fixing pre-snap problems

Pickett has shown that he can get the team to the proper protection or play. The tape validates how he can communicate, use hand signals, and function with the 40-second clock ticking down (below).

Kenny Pickett

9. Working through progressions

The ability to work beyond a primary or even secondary receiver and get to No. 3 or a flare control player is critical to a quarterback’s development.

Kenny Pickett

In this picture above, Pickett steps up in the pocket after working to upfield receivers first, delivering a soft throw to Harris.

Here, after looking upfield at three verticals, Pickett once again finishes his progression by coming off to his flare control Pickens (above).

10. Ball Security

The No. 1 fundamental for a quarterback is to take care of the football when he’s throwing it or running with it. Regardless of their time in the league, quarterbacks need daily work at this fundamental, which is essential when winning or losing a game. It is no different for Pickett.

Awareness of ‘blindside pursuit’ while exiting the pocket is fundamental and universal to all quarterbacks. The tip of the ball should never be below the waist like it is here, and two hands should always be tightly on the ball at chest level until the quarterback exits the pocket. The ball was stripped, and the Eagles recovered (above).

Kenny Pickett

Here the ball is loose and exposed to pursuing defenders (above). This is dangerous and puts the entire team at risk.

Another aspect of ball security is not recklessly forcing throws.

Here, while backed up and on the move after exiting the pocket, Pickett makes a reckless decision and throws the ball into double coverage (above). Fortunately, the ball fell to the ground.

In this picture above, on the edge of the red zone, Pickett forces the ball high into three defenders at the goal line. Fortunately, again it was incomplete.

Based on the tape of the last three games, it is apparent that Kenny Pickett has the skillset and intangibles confirming his first-round status and starting position with the Steelers. He checks all the boxes on tape necessary to play the game at the highest level, and Coach Tomlin is giving him a chance to grow.

But there is one glaring exception. The ball is on the ground far too often.

As accurate as he can be while throwing the ball to all levels of the field, he has not consistently thrown the ball accurately enough to be a good NFL quarterback.

I am hopeful that through the remainder of the season and with an offseason of work on and off the field and in the classroom, we will see more production through improved accuracy. By the way, he gets another chance to get better this Monday night against the Colts. I am excited to see what he can do.

 

WATCH MORE: Greg Jennings argues that Kenny Pickett will get George Pickens the ball more, put him in contention for OROY.

 

 

 

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