The Steelers have a promising offense built around some young pieces like Kenny Pickett, Najee Harris, and others that could take a leap in 2023. Perhaps the most hyped-up player on the entire offense is wide receiver George Pickens, who made highlight-reel plays that have made the rounds on social media.
However, there is a real argument to be made that there is some considerable concern with Pickens’ profile. That comes from Matt Harmon of Reception Perception raises some concerns about what Pickens did in his rookie year and the sustainability of those highlight reel catches. He even went on to say that Pickens could project like Devante Parker if some of these issues are not cleaned up. Either way, here is his success rate on different types of routes and how much he ran each type of route.
Here's exactly how often Pickens ran a slant or curl (and how often he got open on them) in the games I WATCHED and charted to get these analytical numbers.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) May 15, 2023
Here are some of the concerning things in that profile. For one, his 68.3% success rate against zone coverage is flat-out bad. According to Harmon, that’s the fifth percentile over the time he has been charting these guys. Then, there is the fact that Pickens has not gained separation much outside of vertical-based routes. He struggles to create separation on slants, curls, digs, and other routes.
When we talk about last season and why Pickens did not get the ball as much, these statistics are pertinent to that discussion. Pickens has a lot of the hard stuff down right now. He can beat press coverage, his ball skills are elite, and his releases off the line allow him to win leverage and bully-ball on vertical-based routes such as corners, go balls, 9-routes, and post routes. When he has those in his arsenal, you get the impressive highlight-reel catches and explosive plays with low-volume targets that Pickens produced.
However, when we are talking about George Pickens, the talk is not about him remaining the receiver he was in 2022. That would be a good WR2 on any team that can get you explosive plays, but you probably should not expect that guy to be the alpha dog volume monster that creates easy separation. If he wants to ascend to WR1 status in the NFL, there are a few obvious improvements that Pickens has to make to his game.
The reception perception profile highlights these, and the biggest one is reading zone coverage. That feels like one that can be easier to improve upon. It’s about reading leverage and different shells right from the jump of the play to understand how to stem the specific route that you will run. Some of this can be chalked up to the rigidness of the routes within Matt Canada’s passing game, and it is probably one of the main areas in which Allen Robinson can help the team. Pickens should watch him closely in this area.
Pickens has elite athleticism and ball skills, which will always make his floor considerably high. However, he has to get better snaps on his routes and improve his route running in order to step up to that next level. From an on-field perspective, I think there are a lot of similarities to the type of player Martavis Bryant was during his early career. That is an explosive player that can take the top off defenses but the nuances of route running are not fully there.
I don’t think Pickens has to be an elite route runner to be a top wide receiver. However, he does have to take steps forward from where he is right now. The numbers bore that out. When you create as many highlight reel plays as Pickens did in 2022, it can be easy to overlook warts beneath that. The Steelers know Pickens is a WR2 type already. But if the aspiration is to make him a WR1, working against zone coverage and developing the nuances of his route running is what will take him to the next level.