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How Ready is NFL-Ready, When Will Kenny Pickett Start for Steelers?

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Steelers QB Kenny Pickett QB Coach Mike Sullivan

Steelers rookie Kenny Pickett was sold to the world as an NFL-ready quarterback, and that makes sense. The 24-year-old was a four-year starter at Pitt, he played in 52 collegiate games, and played all of them in a pro-style offense.

Specifically when it comes to the Steelers, Pickett had to make essentially no transition in his life from college to pro, he has played in not only two-pro style offenses, but one of which that has the same underpinnings as the one run by Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada.

On the depth chart, there are two experienced quarterbacks ahead of him, but one is new to the team, and neither have had real success in the NFL as a starter. Pickett’s path to playing time is not overwhelmingly difficult.

So when it comes to a college quarterback transitioning into the NFL, Pickett’s should be about as easy at it gets. But what does that look like?

It’s still not all that easy, particularly when it comes to the mental side of the game. Pickett talked about some of the details during a recent appearance on the Perfect Thursday Podcast.

“We had more installs in college in terms of like number of them,” Pickett said. “We had six with the Steelers so far, and just there’s a lot more volume in each I’d say. So, they’re not dragged out as much as college was. You have to learn a lot more in a short amount of time. And I had to catch up obviously to what they already had put in. Rookie minicamp, I think we were through like 1.5. We finished up on Sunday and (next Tuesday) was our first OTAs with the vets and they were on six. It’s good, it’s kind of just (being) thrown in the fire and you got to learn.”

Even if a player is physically developed, the time frame for how quickly that transition can be made varies from player to player.

Steelers fans will of course, remember that Ben Roethlisberger played from the second game of his rookie season in 2004. But that was because Tommy Maddox and Charlie Batch were both injured. The Steelers didn’t really have much of a choice. 

Some others have been thrust into action by a desperate coach or team that had a struggling veteran ahead of them. But with Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph ahead of Pickett, with what looks like it could be the league’s best defense and an improved rushing attack with Najee Harris, it’s hard to envision the Steelers being so bad that Mike Tomlin panics and turns to the rookie before he’s ready. Hell, it’s really hard imagining Tomlin panicking, ever. Period.

If Pickett is going to play, he’s going to be ready. So when have the very most NFL-ready quarterbacks of recent draft classes gotten that call?

Of the 13 first-round picks made to earn their starting role over the last five draft classes, two started the very first possible game (Mac Jones and Sam Darnold) and two more started in Week 2. Nearly half made their first start by Week 3 and all but three (Patrick Mahomes, Trey Lance and Jordan Love) had earned a starting role by the midpoint of their first season.

When should the Steelers expect Pickett to be ready? If history is a guide, it looks like he should be ready by mid-season. If Pickett is supposedly more NFL-ready than others, he could be at the front of that curve. But history also shows that the play of the men in front of him will have a large impact on when Pickett gets his first chance to start. Will Trubisky look more like the Mike Glennon he replaced in Chicago or the Aaron Rodgers that has kept Love glued to the bench in Green Bay? That remains to be seen.

QBs THAT EARNED ROLE

2021 1-20 Mac Jones (1) Beat out Cam Newton to start in Week 1.
2018 1-3 Sam Darnold (1) Beat out Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown to start in Week 1.
2018 1-7 Josh Allen (2) Replaced Nate Peterman, who had a zero passer rating in the first game.
2017 1-12 Deshaun Watson (2) Tom Savage was benched midway through the first game of the season and Watson took over from there, though his rookie season was cut short by an ACL injury.
2019 1-6 Daniel Jones (3) Eli Manning wasn’t particularly bad in the Giants first two games, but it was clear the rest of the team was, and so the future with Jones started early.
2021 1-11 Justin Fields (3) Bears head coach Matt Nagy turned to Fields after benching Andy Dalton three games in, trying to save his job. It didn’t work.
2018 1-1 Baker Mayfield (4) Replaced Tyrod Taylor in the Browns’ third game and then took over as the starter after a strong performance.
2018 1-10 Josh Rosen (4) Took over for Sam Bradford early into his rookie season. Bradford threw for just 400 yards and two TDs in three games.
2017 1-2 Mitch Trubisky (5) Trubisky took over after Mike Glennon turned the ball over four times in Week 4.
2020 1-5 Tua Tagovailoa (7) Replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick after the Dolphins started the season 3-3 and Fitzpatrick had a 95 passer rating in those games.
2017 1-10 Patrick Mahomes (17) The Chiefs got a meaningless Week 17 game, with KC locked into playoff position, so Mahomes got his first start in 2017 before handing things back to Alex Smith for the playoffs. But he was back in the QB1 role for good in 2018 after Smith was traded to Washington.
2021 1-3 Trey Lance (18+) Filled in one game for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo. Figures to start this season, assuming San Francisco trades Garoppolo.
2020 1-26 Jordan Love (33+) Not much he can do about being stuck behind Aaron Rodgers.

PLAYED DUE TO INJURY AND KEPT ROLE

2020 1-6 Justin Herbert (2) Tyrod Taylor was a late scratch after a botched program injection. Herbert took over and never looked back.
2019 1-15 Dwayne Haskins (9) Case Keenum was in the concussion protocol, opening the door for Haskins, who kept the starting job the rest of the season.
2018 1-30 Lamar Jackson (10) Joe Flacco had a hip injury and the uber-talented Jackson never looked back.

HAD NO REAL COMPETITION FOR ROLE

2021 1-1 Trevor Lawrence (1) Token competition from CJ Beathard.
2021 1-2 Zach Wilson (1) Token competition from James Morgan and Mike White.
2020 1-1 Joe Burrow (1) Token competition from Ryan Finley.
2019 1-1 Kyler Murray (1) Token competition from Brett Hundley.

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