PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pitt Panthers are extremely close neighbors in Pittsburgh.
At the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side they share an indoor practice facility, split a headquarters building, and their practice fields lie right next to one another on the strip of land adjacent to the Monongahela River. The teams also share their game day home at Heinz Field on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.
The familiarity has generally been a positive for the Pitt program, as the association with the Steelers has been a recruiting boon. Pitt players and coaches can frequently be seen as spectators at Steelers practices and the Steelers coaching staff is generally very familiar with the Pitt players as they enter the NFL.
But that familiarity hasn’t meant a ton of Pitt players ending up with the Steelers. Since the Panthers and Steelers moved in together on the South Side, the Steelers had drafted just one Pitt player before taking quarterback Kenny Pickett in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
That was running back James Conner in 2017. Before that, the last Pitt player drafted by the Steelers was Hank Poteat in 2000. The last Pitt to Steelers first rounder was tackle Tom Ricketts in 1989.
The Steelers have been more apt to hire on Pitt’s undrafted players, with Quadree Henderson, Lafayette Pitts, Matt Galambos, Scott Orndoff and others donning the black and gold over recent years. But their contributions have largely been minimal.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said on Thursday that the level familiarity can sometimes become a negative for the Pitt players when it comes to the Steelers’ draft evaluation of them. They’re aware of the players’ strength, but probably also more keenly aware of their weaknesses than those of some players whose colleges are more readily able to hide them.
“Sometimes we’re more critical of the Pitt guys because we’ve watched them grow from freshmen on up,” Colbert said. “We get a little too critical times, and we talk about that. Some of the other kids, the other players, we catch them in their sophomore, junior year and you don’t get to see them quite as much. … We really don’t get to see the Pitt kids as much as you think we do. They’re on an opposite practice schedule. We get to see them play some more games. ”
That is where Colbert saw Pickett make a difference, especially as a senior in 2021.
“Kenny developed, obviously had a great senior year, and it was a good move for him to stay in school,” Colbert said. “It just talks and preaches about what you can do when you stay and continue to develop and turn into a first-round pick. Kenny is special, and he grew from — like I said, we watched him come in as a freshman. You knew who he was, and when he became their starter, you just continued to watch him grow into the great season that he had.”
In this case, it seems that the familiarity between Pickett and the Steelers was a positive one for both sides.
“I’ve known him for several years now, whether it’s in the parking lot or what have you, wishing him good luck on a big game of the week,” head coach Mike Tomlin said.
“You know, it’s interesting, well, we circled the globe or at least the United States here the last several months, man, just exploring and researching, and it’s funny, we ended up with a guy from next door.”