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Kingerski: Here’s How to Judge Kenny Pickett & His NFL Future

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Steelers QB Kenny Pickett RB Benny Snell

There must have been a memo that didn’t make it to this desk stating that rookie QBs should arrive as fully-formed, well-rounded pigskin chuckers capable of diagnosing complex NFL defenses. And they should get better every week. Kenny Pickett has been judged against Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen since moving his locker stall from one end of the South Side complex to the other.

No matter if the quarterback was the third-stringer for the formative part of training camp, yet rose above his station and earned a start just four weeks into the season.

Seriously, after seven starts, that’s it. We’ve seen his ceiling, right?

Kenny Pickett was good on Monday night in front of a national TV audience. He wasn’t great. He made mistakes, missed a few blitz reads, and let a sure TD pass sail. Yet PFF said he was the second-best QB in Week 12.

But one game doesn’t make Kenny Pickett, just as surely as the next bad game will not break him.

T.J . Watt used the proper words after the game on Monday night, “We can win with Kenny.”

As someone who’s been through enough locker rooms and fed enough verbal manure, it struck me as sincere. When guys are unsure, they go bold or hedge with alternate phrases. A simple answer is usually the honest one.

His team is with him.

You don’t judge Kenny Pickett on a game-to-game basis. You judge him over blocks of time. There will be downs. There will be sideways moments when you wonder if he’s played the position before. Sometimes those may compound.

And, as we saw on Monday against the Indianapolis Colts and in the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals, there will be moments when you exclaim, “That’s the guy!”

Microanalyzing is a waste of time at this juncture.

Mahomes started one game in his rookie year, and the Chiefs were just a little better than this ragtag Steelers crew. Allen made 10 starts in his rookie year for the Buffalo Bills. He has 10 TDs and 12 INTs.

Those were both top-10 quarterbacks in the draft. That’s a bit different than Pickett at No. 20, too.

If you’re wondering if the Pittsburgh Steelers should draft a QB in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, bonk yourself on the head, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and feel shame.

If you’re ready to proclaim Kenny Pickett is not good enough or want to set a ceiling based on what you’ve seen, see above.

It doesn’t matter if a rookie QB is 21 or 24 years old. NFL defenses are complex. They’re not the 4-3 smashmouth you watch on Fridays. They’re not the simple dime packages rolling through the ACC or Big 10 on Saturday.

Remember around these parts when we routinely sang the praises of defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau for his complex 3-4 blitz schemes that confused even veteran QBs? Now flip that scenario, and you have the Steelers QB learning on the job.

Pickett is a different guy than the gunslinger who hit every quadrant up and down the field against the Jets. He had no fear that day, and it cost him. A few of those passes wound up in the wrong hands and were a primary reason for the loss.

Over the next few weeks, Pickett didn’t learn his lesson well enough, and turnovers were an albatross.

But he did learn. He’s kept learning.

Those turnovers and exciting plays have given way to more conservative game management. Lo and behold, the Steelers have also found a running game exceeding 100 yards each of the last four weeks.

Through it all, opposing defenses know what play is coming, and Pickett is still progressing. (For the second straight week, defenders knew the plays and called out the Steelers’ offense — Hello, Matt Canada?)

It’s the joys of a rookie QB. If he starts too hot, you worry about the sophomore slump. If he gets roughed up but keeps grinding forward, you’ve got a keeper.

Pickett isn’t just grinding forward. He’s taking reasonable steps forward. And he’ll take a few more backward, too.

He may only become an average or above-average NFL starter. He may become very good. We don’t know where the ceiling is, but with the cold antiseptic sunlight shining on larger chunks of his play and progression, he’s obviously an NFL quarterback.

His future isn’t in doubt.

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