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Carter: No Pressure on Steelers to Make Kenny Pickett Rookie Starter

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Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada (left) watches quarterback Kenny Pickett throw during rookie camp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

PITTSBURGH — Expectations on rookie quarterbacks have always been high as teams looked for their next franchise quarterback in the NFL Draft to take over their offense. The Steelers are hoping for Kenny Pickett to be their next star at the position, but shouldn’t, and won’t, force that to be the case this season.

As the only quarterback selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, what are reasonable expectations for Pickett when it comes to becoming the Steelers’ starting quarterback over Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph in 2022?

Trubisky has 50 starts with a 29-21 record in his four years for the Bears while Rudolph has ten starts with a 5-4-1 record for the Steelers in his four seasons. Pickett represents the Steelers’ first quarterback to be selected in the first round of an NFL Draft since Ben Roethlisberger was picked in 2004.

Mike Tomlin will have an interesting decision to make between the quarterbacks that will be proven from OTAs, mini-camp and training camp over the next three months. But having a rookie quarterback from the first round will be a new factor he hasn’t had to consider in his career.

From the 115 quarterbacks who have been drafted over the past ten seasons (2012-2021), only 64 quarterbacks have started a game as a rookie. Only 26 of those quarterbacks have started at least 12 games in their rookie season, while only 11 quarterbacks started every regular season game their rookie year.

But does Pickett need to be the full-time starter to have been worth a first round pick? Looking at quarterbacks from those years shows that there are no certain trends. From those quarterbacks, only 20 have had at least one Pro Bowl season, and only 11 of them have had multiple Pro Bowl seasons.

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Between Pro Bowl quarterbacks, only 13 of those 20 started at least 12 games in their rookie year, and only 9 of those quarterbacks started every game to start their career. While it would be common logic that it would be the most successful quarterbacks who started the majority of their rookie season, looking at recent examples doesn’t paint that clear a picture.

There have been quarterbacks who’ve gone on to make multiple Pro Bowls who started their entire rookie season like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott and Kyler Murray. But there are also counter-examples like Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins, none of whom started even 12 games in their rookie seasons.

That means from quarterbacks drafted over the last ten seasons, there are more of the 11 who’ve made multiple Pro Bowls who didn’t immediately earn their starting job than those who did.

Putting this in perspective for Pickett, any pressure that he has to earn the starting job for the Steelers out of training camp as some symbol for his future with the team will be external from the organization. The Steelers will know and understand that if Pickett will forge a successful career as a playmaking quarterback for them, it will happen on his own schedule.

If Pickett has to start the season on the bench while Trubisky or Rudolph start, it won’t be some major sign that the Steelers botched their first round pick. It will simply be an acknowledgment that whoever won the starting job was more NFL ready at that point in time.

But as we’ve seen with quarterbacks like Mahomes, Allen, Jackson, Watson, and even older quarterbacks like Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, quarterbacks can become NFL stars even if they don’t shine right away as a rookie. Pickett’s strengths coming out of college have been his accuracy, and ability to read the field and decipher defenses.

Even when young quarterbacks may have those particular strengths, those are the traits that could take more time to cultivate to the NFL. The schematics of defenses are more complex than in the NCAA and NFL defenses have bigger, faster talent that further complicate the cerebral responsibilities of NFL quarterbacks from the college experience.

While Pickett makes those adjustments to his game, the Steelers won’t need to compound his learning process with taking unnecessary bumps and bruises of playing NFL teams if they don’t feel he’s ready. If Trubisky can even just be the placeholder quarterback to start while Pickett makes those adjustments, he was worth the signing.

But any evaluation of Pickett’s worthiness of being a first round pick that stems purely from his rookie season will prove fruitless regardless if he’s NFL Rookie of the Year or doesn’t start a single game. He’ll need time to grow, and Tomlin will give him that space.

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