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Steelers Burning Questions: How Good Can Kenny Pickett Be?



Steelers Kenny Pickett
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett at training camp, Aug. 4, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers will begin their 2023 season on Sunday, when the San Francisco 49ers come to Acrisure Stadium to kick things off.

In terms of getting ready for the season, the hay, as Mike Tomlin likes to say, is in the barn.

The Steelers have been making moves for this season since March, have been practicing together since late July and have played three preseason games. There’s not much left to be learned until they put on the pads and play in a real NFL football game.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty left to learn. This week, we will examine three unanswerable-at-this-point questions regarding the Steelers, their 2023 season, and set up the early season storylines that we’re watching.


Pickett has done just about everything right since coming to the Steelers as the first-round pick out of Pitt last year. He works hard, he says the right things, he’s endeared himself to his teammates and they voted him captain on Monday. From an intangible standpoint, Pickett is basically a perfect quarterback.

While it is a position where those intangibles matter more than almost anywhere else on the football field, there is more to the game’s most difficult position than being a good teammate and a hard worker.

There’s the physical tools: throwing accurately and deeply and running fast. But it’s a secret-sauce combination of the mental and the physical that makes great quarterbacks great.

There’s knowing when to step up in the pocket or run. Knowing whether to take the hit to make the throw or live to fight another day Putting the ball at the precise point that will allow the receiver to separate from the defender and make a big gain out of a small play. Reading a defense on the fly and being able to tailor the offense’s attack to its weaknesses immediately.

In all of the ways that we can evaluate football players, we have no ways to measure those things. There are no combine data, no collegiate statistical evaluation and no Wonderlic test that shows any of those things.

The combine performance of Michigan’s Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick that became the greatest NFL quarterback of all time, is so pathetic that is has become a meme.

It helps to have great physical tools. Brady was an outlier, not the rule. But his career path and those of others show that all that is required is a minimum amount of physical talent when put together with those other skills to make a great quarterback.

Pickett has been an NFL quarterback for only.a year and a starter for less than that. The statistical results from Year 1 were unimpressive, to say the least. But Pickett improved significantly down the stretch run, and looks better yet this training camp and preseason, when he finished with a perfect passer rating and led a touchdown drive every time he stepped onto the field.

Borrowing again from Tomlin, it’s reasonable to expect Pickett to be better early this year than he was last year, and it’s reasonable to expect him to be better by the end of this season than he will be when he leaves the tunnel at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday.

But where will that improvement stop being reasonable. We can know that a Brady-like career arc is unlikely. But that doesn’t really tell us where along that path Pickett will fall.

There has been lots of talk this offseason about Pickett’s place among the AFC North’s four quarterbacks. Right now, the only one he could reasonably claim to be better than is Deshaun Watson, who struggled greatly in his return to action with Cleveland last season.

But Pickett is the one of the four that is still firmly in an upward trajectory. We might not the get the full answer to that question this season — and tomorrow’s topic has a lot to do with it — but by the end of 2023, we should have a lot better read of what Pickett’s ceiling can be.

For now, while the answer to this question is unknowable, it doesn’t prevent us from talking about it. What do you think Kenny Pickett’s ceiling is? Leave a comment and we’ll see who turned out to be correct.

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