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Steelers Analysis

George Pickens Must Step Up in 2024

The Pittsburgh Steelers need George Pickens to be a star for the team in 2024, despite the questions around the entire group in the WR room.

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Steelers WR George Pickens
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

During his last year in Atlanta, the loudest criticism of new Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith stemmed from his inability to get top playmakers like Drake London, Kyle Pitts, and Bijan Robinson the football. While it rang true in some game scripts, the overall stats, specifically with per-game usage and raw targets or carries, will not tell you that story. Looking back to Tennessee, Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown had huge years that catapulted them to the top of the NFL at their positions. There is a receiver who could follow Brown’s script: George Pickens.

London still had 109 targets, and how Smith uses his top receiver will allow a guy like Pickens to pop. The more the Steelers put on Pickens’ plate throughout the season, the more he showed out. Pickens proved by the end of the season that he could run any route to all three levels of the field, and more than that, he is far more dangerous yards after the catching player than he was given credit for initially.

But former NFL general manager and Steelers executive Doug Whaley does not think that Pickens is a top wide receiver, but rather a very good No. 2, and he believes they need someone else to complement what Pickens does.

“I wish they would’ve gotten a complementary receiver to George [Pickens], because I still think George is a number two, I don’t see him as a number one. He doesn’t run a complete route tree. He does have big plays, but it is always vertically cutting routes. Its not comeback routes, routes where you break it off, choice routes, stuff like that. To me, they need a number one, and possibly a number two because I think George is a number two,” Whaley said on The Coaches Round Table.

Smith’s play-action shots will not only set up Pickens for the ability to win down the field, but he could be used similarly to A.J. Brown in Tennessee when he catches those slants and digs off play action. They are efficient routes for an efficient route runner and receiver who can create explosive plays when given the play in those spots.

So, yes, the top playmakers’ comment is notable, but it’s a bit overblown when you look at it as a whole. And Smith’s dropback passing game is lackluster, which is likely why the team wants to add a passing game coordinator to add more flavor to that part of the offense, but Pickens can cook within the bread and butter of the entire scheme.

Pickens has all those requisite traits to build off and embrace as part of the Steelers wide receiver corps. It’s not out of the question he could ramp up his consistency and hit those big plays consistently. Teams will work to take him away from doing that, but Smith’s offense fits a lot of what Pickens does well. Without Diontae Johnson around, it would be more than Pickens just getting the scheme to help him. He will have to take the next leap in his maturation.

“And certainly, we’re really comfortable with the trajectory of George Pickens in terms of what he’s going to be able to provide us as a player, not only in terms of playmaking, but what his experience within the room and within this organization provides us,” Tomlin said of Pickens.

Pickens does things that most other NFL wide receivers can not do. Whether on the practice field or during games, Pickens has become a human highlight reel, and inside or outside the building, it is not hard to see why the Steelers are so high on his prospects. Heading into his third year, Pickens is looking for a leap that takes him into superstar territory.