MOBILE, Ala. — The Pittsburgh Steelers spent six days at the 2022 Senior Bowl in Mobile making no secret that they were there to look at the quarterbacks.
President Art Rooney II, general manager Kevin Colbert, pro scouting director Brandon Hunt, head coach Mike Tomlin, offensive coordinator Matt Canada and quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan were all in attendance, along with the usual cadre of amateur scouts, and that’s basically every part of the Steelers organization that could be involved with a decision about a quarterback.
That doesn’t mean that the Steelers will definitely take a quarterback when pick No. 20 comes around during the 2022 NFL Draft, but it was certainly jarring to see them so nakedly showing their interest in the position.
Whether they draft a quarterback or not, it’s clear that the Steelers made it their mission to leave the Senior Bowl knowing exactly what they thought of the six passers involved.
Here’s what I saw the from the six passers in Mobile:
KENNY PICKETT, PITT
Pickett established himself as the safest pick of the 2022 NFL Draft quarterbacks with his consistency and poise in the week of Senior Bowl practice. That’s probably to be expected from a four-year starter, but it was good to see Pickett continue to show the traits that made him successful at Pitt.
He has a good grasp of how to attack defenses, he takes care of the football, and he has enough arm strength to make all the throws he needs to make on a regular basis. Pickett also has more than functional athleticism.
Pickett is also an excellent leader, he’s extremely competitive, poised, well-spoken, and exactly the kind of person that a team would want as the face of its franchise.
The questions about Pickett are not whether or not he can be a good player in the NFL, but rather how good of an NFL player he can be. He does not have the strongest arm in this class, he is not the fastest or most athletic. He will likely measure out as having among the smallest hands, for those that put stock in that.
Pickett’s first four seasons at Pitt did not put him in the first-round conversation. His fifth did. Pickett and Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy said a lot of that improvement was in his ability to read defenses, his comfort with the offense, and other mental improvement as opposed to be a significantly better physical thrower.
Projecting those skills to the NFL is still very difficult. Of players with roughly similar physical attributes as Pickett taken in the first couple rounds the last few years, some have excelled, like Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Mac Jones, while others have struggled, like Zach Wilson, Daniel Jones, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Mitchell Trubisky.
Most of those players were high-first round picks. I expect Pickett will be, too. But as that track record shows, even that doesn’t make him a sure thing to be a star player at the next level.
Current prediction: No. 6, Carolina Panthers
MALIK WILLIS, LIBERTY
Willis entered the Senior Bowl practice week as probably the most-anticipated prospect. Unlike Pickett, who played for a long time in the relatively highly scouted ACC, Willis came out of Liberty with a lot of hype and an impressive highlight reel, but questionable statistical success throwing the football.
At particular issue was his high interceptions total, which led many that hadn’t seem him play in full to question how they happened.
In Mobile, Willis put a good bit of those concerns to rest. He has the strongest arm of the class, so he’s not under-throwing deep balls and letting them hang up there for defensive backs to go get them. He also doesn’t seem to have an issue with accuracy. For the most part, Willis’ passes this week went where he wanted them to go. When combined with his Lamar Jackson-esque rushing ability, that gives Willis the highest upside out of this group of passers.
After watching him up close for a week, I see two reasons for Willis’ high interception totals in college. One is that he sometimes mis-identifies the amount of zip he needs to put on a particular pass. Over-thrown passes that bang off the hands of receivers can make for easy interceptions, as can under-thrown balls that give defenders too much time to make up ground. Willis can make all the throws, but sometimes seems to struggle in deciding on which ones to make.
The other big question, and one that probably won’t be resolved by anything he did on-the-field in Mobile, is his ability to read defenses, adjust to different types of coverages, go through progressions, make audibles and be the tactical leader of an offense. At Liberty, it was very much an offense where he could make one read, and if it wasn’t there, take off running. He is such a talented runner that him running was rarely a bad play for the Flames. But in the NFL, that math changes.
Willis has the physical skills to be the best quarterback in this draft class and one of the very best in the NFL. But college players that throw an interception every 28 attempts don’t usually make it far in the league. One of those things will have to give, and it makes Willis the biggest boom or bust selection of this class.
Current prediction: No. 8, Atlanta Falcons
SAM HOWELL, NORTH CAROLINA
Howell came into the 2021 season as one of the top quarterback prospects in college football, but was unable to replicate the success that he had in his junior season in 2020.
North Carolina’s offense saw a massive departure of talent surrounding Howell between the 2020 and 2021 season, so the hope for Howell was that when again surrounded by a higher talent level, he would return to his previous form.
That didn’t really happen for Howell this week, though. He was not as good as Willis, playing on the same team, nor was he as good or as consistent as Pickett on the other squad.
Howell has drawn Baker Mayfield comparisons, which fit because of his size and running style, but he’s a more-polished passer on short routes than Mayfield was coming out of college. But Howell fumbled twice in the Senior Bowl and had some missed throws throughout the week, particularly troubling, in scenarios where he was in rhythm and should have been able to connect.
He just doesn’t seem to have the same kind of pocket and huddle as presence Pickett, or the top-level physical attributes of Willis, and to me, that makes him a distant third in this class.
At the end of the day, Howell looks like a quarterback that a team could win with, but probably not because of. If he has a strong supporting cast, he could find some success, but expecting him to elevate talent appears to be folly. Given that, a slide down the draft board might not be the worst thing for him.
Current prediction: No. 18, New Orleans Saints
DESMOND RIDDER, CINCINNATI
Ridder had a solid week as the backup to Kenny Pickett. In many ways, they’re similar players: experienced starters that raised their profile significantly by going back to school in 2021. Both are tough, competitive and seem to be solid leaders.
Ridder is more of a pure runner than Pickett, who is more of a scrambler, but not as jaw-droopingly athletic as Willis.
The difference that Ridder has not been as prolific of a passer. His completion percentage is lower than Pickett’s and he showed bouts of inaccuracy in Mobile. He also was in an offense that featured the quarterback’s arm much less, throwing 387 times in 2021 — more than 100 times fewer than Pickett in one more game.
So while Pickett is the draft’s high-floor king, Ridder just has a few more question marks, while also not having the top-level physical tools of Willis. That will probably knock him into the second day.
Current projection: No. 41, Seattle Seahawks
CARSON STRONG, NEVADA
Strong was the only pure pocket passer at the Senior Bowl, and the contrast between him and the others at the top of this class is stark.
Coming off a knee injury that limited his mobility at the start of the season, Strong looked like a statue on tape, and while he showed better wheels than that at Mobile, he also displayed a dismaying lack of accuracy on throws when he couldn’t set his feet.
Strong also showed a suspect deep ball at the Senior Bowl, badly under-throwing what would have been an easy touchdown that instead was intercepted in the third quarter of the game.
I came to Mobile thinking that Strong might provide value for the Steelers at the quarterback position at No. 52, but left thinking that a team seemingly obsessed with quarterback mobility will ignore him altogether.
Current projection: No. 73, Washington Commanders
BAILEY ZAPPE, WESTERN KENTUCKY
The Hilltoppers had a great season, but Zappe was a clear outlier of the six invites in terms of talent, and it showed throughout the week.
He just does not possess the arm strength or accuracy of the other quarterbacks, and despite toughness and mobility, probably projects best as a backup at the next level.
That will still be useful to someone, but it shouldn’t be to the Steelers, who have two backup types already in Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins.
Current projection: No. 163, Las Vegas Raiders
MATT CORRAL, OLE MISS; KALEB ELEBY, WESTERN MICHIGAN
Willis showed his athletic upside and Pickett displayed his consistency, but neither player really did anything to cement themselves as sure-fire top-10 picks. My projections are more of an acknowledgment of the number of teams that desperately need quarterbacks than my faith in the ability of the players. The four players behind those two did not necessarily cover themselves in glory over the week, either.
I don’t think either Matt Corral or Kaleb Eleby were hurt by not being in attendance in Mobile, and honestly, they may have been helped. As things stand now, I’d put Corral as the No. 3 quarterback in the class and Eleby no worse than No. 6 heading into the combine.