How good will Kenny Pickett be in 2023?
That is one of the existential questions surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers and this coming season. In the NFL, the ceiling of a team is defined by quarterback play.
Clubs with top talents at the position like Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes feel like they should be able to contend for a Super Bowl year in and year out.
It’s possible for a team not getting that level of quarterback play to make it. Recent examples include the Los Angeles Rams twice, with Jared Goff in 2018 and Matthew Stafford in 2021 and the San Francisco 49ers with Jimmy Garoppolo in 2019. But it usually requires an extremely solid team around the quarterback, and for everything to break right for the team that season.
The Steelers used their 2022 first-round draft pick on Pickett with the hopes that he will develop into the kind of player that can lead the Steelers to routinely compete for Super Bowls, but he was obviously not yet that kind of player in his rookie season in 2022.
Statistically, Pickett was pedestrian, finishing 23rd in completion percentage, 28th in yards per game, 32nd in passer rating, 20th in QBR and 31st in adjusted net yards per attempt.
Of course, rookies are not finished products. Mahomes played in one game his rookie season. Burrow got hurt. Allen was miserable, with numbers even worse than Pickett’s. Just because Pickett was not that kind of player in 2022 does not mean that he will not be going forward.
But let’s not talk about what’s possible. Let’s talk about what’s probable. What is a reasonable projected for Pickett’s 2023 production?
For that, we have some solid recent track record to mine. Nine players were at least part-time starters as a rookie in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, and also were at least part-time starter the following season: Burrow, Justin Fields, Justin Herbert, Hurts, Mac Jones, Trevor Lawrence, Davis Mills, Tua Tagovailoa and Zach Wilson.
Of those nine players, they averaged a passer rating 5.7 points better, a QBR 7.6 points better and .55 more adjusted net yards per attempt. Lawrence saw the most improvement, with his passer rating bolting from 71.9 to 95.2. Jones and Mills were on the other end of the scale, as both were worse across the board in their second seasons. Mills saw his passer rating drop 10 points from 88.8 to 78.8.
So if Pickett sees about the average change from Year 1 to Year 2 as those nine players did, what will his 2023 numbers look like? His passer rating would jump from 76.7 to 82.4 and his adjusted net yards per attempt would climb from 4.7 to 5.3.
Looking at more traditional statistics, in 2022, Pickett completed 245 of 389 passes for 2,404 yards, seven touchdowns and nine interceptions.
One way our nine-player model projects Pickett’s 2023 season to look is something like this: 350 of 550 for 3,400 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. More touchdowns and proportionally more interceptions (something like 15 TDs and 10 INTs) would also work. There are many permutations that add up to the above totals.
Last season, those numbers would have placed Pickett 15th in passing yards, 31st in touchdown percentage, but first in interception percentage. His passer rating would have been 29th and his adjusted net yards per attempt would’ve finished 25th.
That’s still far from superstar territory, and that’s likely the reason for depressed overall projections about the Steelers’ 2023 season from afar. But Pickett managed to win seven of his 12 starts as a rookie, and he did it while missing star defender T.J. Watt for part of that stretch. Better quarterback play, even if it’s only an incremental step forward, along with a healthier defense and a better running game, should be enough to get the Steelers back into the playoffs in 2023.
But of course, an average outcome compared to that cohort is not guaranteed for Pickett. Seven of those nine players were drafted earlier than Pickett. Lawrence and Fields had their second seasons boosted by coaching and coordinator changes, potential benefits not on the table for Pickett.
This article has been updated to clarify its intent as a statistical projection, and not a prediction.