PITTSBURGH — George Pickens entered the NFL with a stigma attached to him that he was immature and reckless. For that reason, and the fact that he missed nearly the entire 2021 season with an ACL injury, Pickens dropped to 52nd overall and was the 11 wide receiver selected in the draft.
Pickens was considered reckless due to two incidents at Georgia. He got in a fistfight with Georgia Tech cornerback Tre Swilling during his freshman year, which resulted in Pickens being ejected and suspended in the first half of the SEC championship game against LSU. And then, in 2020, Pickens squirted a water bottle at Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano after the Vol signal-caller fell out of bounds on the Bulldog sideline. Pickens received a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and Tennessee later took a 21-17 lead on that drive off a 27-yard touchdown pass. After the game, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart ripped Pickens for his actions.
Minus an outburst against the Atlanta Falcons when Pickens yelled “throw me the f***ing ball” at the Steelers sideline, there really wasn’t any drama with the rookie. And Pickens wanting the ball and using an expletive isn’t really anything out of the ordinary, as it happens at pretty much every level of football. It doesn’t make it ideal, but football is an emotional game and things happen.
Mike Tomlin has found no support in the narrative of Pickens being a character problem or head case. In fact, he finds it to be quite degrading to even suggest.
“I sometimes get resistant when I get asked about his maturity and character-related things because oftentimes he got mischaracterized pre-draft,” Tomlin said Monday at his season-ending press conference. “And so that’s why I get combative at times and defensive when it comes to him.
“He’s a quality young man, he is. He’s professional. He’s been really consistent in his work. He loves football, he likes to work. We haven’t seen a lot of things that we hear about the rumors regarding him. That’s why we defend him.”
In regards to the Pickens’ incident in Atlanta, Tomlin considered it just as a fluid part of the maturation process and growing into a professional.
“That’s business, unfortunately, particularly at this level,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes. particularly when they’re young, they don’t do a good job managing it and it could affect their growth and development. And when you’re in my profession, you better fight to defend that, and that’s why I do. Thankfully, he’s got thick skin and he’s a tough-minded kid. It had very little bearing on his day-to-day and the spirit in which he played.”
Pickens finished fourth among rookie wide receivers in receptions (52) and yards (801). He especially excelled in stretching the field, as he led all rookie receivers in average yards per catch (15.4) and 20-yard receptions (17). He was also a contested catch machine. Among 59 wide receivers with 70+ targets this year, Pickens finished first in contested catch percentage (67.9%). Nine of his contested catches were 20+ yards down the field, which was also tied for the most in the NFL.
Pickens developed a solid rapport with fellow rookie Kenny Pickett in 2022. Of Pickett’s seven touchdown passes, four went to Pickens, and two were from 20+ yards out. The Steelers’ passing game struggled immensely this year, and Pickens didn’t always receive a lot of targets (only 84 on the year). Despite it all, however, Pickens never threw his quarterback under the bus or caused havoc in the locker room. He might have had a mishap in Atlanta, but he was not even close to being a diva like many falsely labeled him as in the pre-draft process.
Alan Saunders provided reporting from Pittsburgh.