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Saunders: Steelers Biggest Improvement for 2023 Won’t Come from Free Agency, Draft



Steelers QB Kenny Pickett

While Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin have criss-crossed the country seeking out the top prospects the 2023 NFL Draft and worked the phone lines constantly to bring in a bumper crop of free agents, it’s clear that the biggest place that the Pittsburgh Steelers can improve from 2022 to 2023 is internal.

Kenny Pickett was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2022. In 2023, he’ll be a full-time starter for the first time, after taking over in Week 3 last fall.  Pickett’s rookie season did not move the needle statistically. He finished 32nd in passer rating, 31st in adjusted net yards per attempt and 20th in QBR.

But he showed a lot of growth throughout the season and late game-winning drives against the Baltimore Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders to provide hope that better days might be ahead in 2023.

The half-dozen free agents signed by Khan will certainly make the team better, particularly in places like the interior of the offensive line and at linebacker, where the concentrated those assets. 

Khan also did enough work in free agency to free himself up to take the best possible player available with the team’s top picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, making those players as impactful as possible, and eliminating the desire to reach for a need.

But no matter what happens in terms of additions to the team between now and the start of the regular season, the fact remains that the biggest possible route for improvement for the Steelers between 2022 and 2023 comes with the maturity and progression of Pickett.

A lot of that work will happen later this spring and summer, when the Steelers gather as a team for OTAs and minicamp at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and then again for training camp at St. Vincent College.

But it’s already started in many ways. Pickett has been working with his personal quarterback coach, Tony Racioppi, since the offseason got started. He and Mitch Trubisky had the team’s receivers join them in Florida for a week of running routes.

Pickett focused on the same things at Pitt, when he led captain’s practices throughout the summers with his Panthers receivers, and that paid off over time. By Pickett’s senior year, he had built a significant rapport with that group that allowed them to play together on the field better than they had in the past.

“Right now, I just think his leadership and communicating informally with teammates, and organizing work that’s productive for all parties involved is what he’s done a nice job of that,” head coach Mike Tomlin said at the NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix last week “There’s some cake batter in the midst of that, just in becoming a leader and believing in him at the QB position.”

Tomlin said he’s “excited” about the potential for further growth from his quarterback, and in a quarterback-laden AFC, that growth will be necessary.

In the AFC in 2022, the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars finished first through fifth in passer rating. Four of the five won their division. All five made the playoffs, as did sixth-best Los Angeles. Only the Baltimore Ravens made the playoffs as an AFC team with a below-average passer rating.

Tomlin said the experience in winning those tough games down the stretch gives him hope and even more excitement than he originally had when the Steelers acquired Pickett about his ability to be the player the team needs him to be.

“I’m excited about Kenny, individually, and the growth he’s capable of making,” Tomlin said. “You just look at the work he’s willing to do to realize that. I’m probably more excited about that because I’ve been around him intimately for 12 months. There were some anticipation things because of the close proximity, but the reality of having worked with him for 12 months is just more evidence of what we should be excited about. It’s his willingness to work, his professional approach, his maturity, and his ability to process.”

“You have to have the ability to learn from your mistakes and not make them twice,” Pickett said this week to “I think that’s what stuck out to me. I didn’t want to put the same things, same mistakes, on tape multiple weeks in a row and I think I did a good job of that. There’s a lot of things that I want to improve on, but as long as I’m learning from the mistakes and moving in the right direction every week, I take that as wins inside of the wins, I guess you could say.”

The offseason is understandably focused on team-building. But the most important work for the Steelers this spring might be happening on a Florida practice field and not the general manager’s office or the draft-day war room.