PITTSBURGH — Just over a year before he became the Pittsburgh Steelers second-round draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Georgia wide receiver George Pickens went through a nightmare. After promising freshman and sophomore seasons, Pickens was playing in the Georgia spring game in March 2021 when he tore his right ACL. The injury is uscoually a season-ending one for most players, but right away, Pickens was determined to return.
“Coming back was already on my agenda immediately, as soon I knew I was injured,” Pickens said Friday after the Steelers drafted him with the No. 52 overall selection.
A little over eight months later, he stepped back on the field, helping Georgia to finish an undefeated regular season and the a College Football Playoff National Championship. Pickens set the return before the season as a goal soon after the injury, and he counts meeting that goal as one of the biggest accomplishments of his college career.
“It really felt amazing,” he said. “Coming back off the ACL injury was just putting in the trust. When I got my trust back, it was just a great feeling to be back on the field with the guys.”
mIt was important to Pickens to go out of college with the same group of players that he came in with, and the fact that the Bulldogs were legitimate national championship contenders only fueled that desire.
“The guys that I came out with was the group that I came in with and I kinda wanted to uphold that as far as us staying together as a bond,” he said.
There was also a functional concern. By returning in 2021, Pickens could make sure his knee was healthy without risking yet another season if he needed another procedure.
It seems that process didn’t just pay off for Pickens’ Georgia teammates. The Steelers, who thought of Pickens as one of the top prospects at wide receiver in 2022 NFL Draft before his injury, were impressed by the tenacity he showed in returning from injury.
“The intangible I think you’ve got to give a lot of credit to is coming back and playing,” Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada said on Friday. “Eight and half months or something from injury to coming back and playing? He didn’t have a huge role but he came back and played late, had some significant plays and fought to get back out there. To me that’s a great show of his character right there.”
The Steelers have had trouble with players coming off ACL injuries in the recent past, with Zach Banner still not right after 2020 surgery and Devin Bush struggling in 2021 following his procedure. But a very strong performance at the Georgia pro day, with Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Canada in attendance, swayed them that Pickens’ quick path to recovery is one that will yield long-term health and a player ready to compete for a starting spot in 2022.
Pickens comes to the Steelers with some character concerns, with some on-the-field lack of discipline and questions about his maturity, but the Steelers are banking that his 2021 drive to return from injury shows the player that he is capable of becoming.