PITTSBURGH — The Steelers taking George Pickens in the second round gave them a wide receiver who boasted several positive traits and big play in his collegiate career at Georgia. But his draft stock took because of a torn ACL injury during spring practices in 2021.
That resulted in him only playing in four games for Georgia last season and catching just five passes for 107 yards. But one of those receptions was a 52-yard bomb during the National Championship against Alabama, a play where Pickens showed, even in a knee brace, he was a dangerous receiver.
As the Steelers wrapped up their third OTAs practice Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Pickens was looking smooth without a knee brace and feeling like he wasn’t limited while he learned his first NFL playbook.
“I feel real comfortable,” Pickens said of his recovery. “When I did get hurt, I looked at it like a hiccup. I knew it wasn’t going to rain forever. Now I’m not wearing a brace or hurt as bad as I was. I’m getting back to my old flow. But I’m 100 percent now.”
As a rookie second round pick, Pickens carries high expectations in what he might contribute to the Steelers in a receiver room that lost both JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington to free agency, and hasn’t seen Diontae Johnson yet at OTAs.
“Whatever coach wants me to do,” Pickens said what he’s focused on in his first practices. “Whatever they want me to do, I just follow their rules and their goals to help us win. I feel like I’m fitting in with a smooth process. Just like every other player, I’m learning the full playbook. The biggest acclimation has been coming to from Georgia to Pittsburgh. Besides that, the guys are good, coaches are good and the food is good. Everything’s pretty smooth.”
As Claypool’s the only veteran Steelers receiver from last year who’s still on the roster, Pickens has leaned on him as the receiver in the room who helps him adjust to the team.
“I talk to Chase almost every day,” Pickens of Claypool. “Experience-wise he’s a veteran and he’s on his (third) year. He’s really been the one helping me get the flow of the game, the locker room and the facility.”
Over the past several years the Steelers have been able to rely on Ben Roethlisberger being the player who helped wide receiver acclimate to the league. But now with a sixth-year quarterback on his third team in Mitch Trubisky, fifth-year veteran with only ten starts Mason Rudolph and rookies Kenny Pickett and Chris Oladokun as quarterbacks, there’s no clear leader of the offense.
But when it comes to leadership, Pickens indicated he’s been able to learn from several different players on the roster, even on defense.
“I know you said quarterbacks, but in reality, everybody on this team is an individual leader,” Pickens said about who’s leading the most. “You can always ask a guy for help. You can ask a DB, a safety, or a quarterback.”
Pickens was known for bringing a strong, athletic presence on the field at Georgia who would bully opponents with strength, speed and explosiveness in and out of his routes. He was also dangerous for extending more plays after the catch before his ACL injury in his sophomore and freshman seasons.
At the core of his success was his confidence to outperform opponents even on the biggest stages. That demeanor is something he plans to lean on while he’s establishing his identity in the Steelers’ offense.
“The biggest thing is confidence,” Pickens answered when asked how he’s acclimating to the NFL. “You can’t lie to yourself. It is a big transition because everything is new. You have to acclimate to it. Confidence is what can take you a long way so that you can act like you’ve been here before.”
If you ask Pickens about which NFL receivers he enjoyed watching the most, he’d give you a short list of stars. But he also seemed quick to acknowledge that his days of awe as an outsider is gone and he’s more focused on being a competitor amidst the very receivers he watched the most.
“I look at a lot of guys,” Pickens said of which NFL receivers he looked the most up to. “Odell (Beckham Jr.), Davante Adams and Cooper Kupp. But now that I’m here, I’m just focusing on my craft because I’m in the place they were.”
Pickens doesn’t seem overconfident in his answers. He sounds like a rookie who’s eager to show just how ready he is to be a playmaker for his new team.