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Saunders: Why Kenny Pickett Had to Go

Why did the Pittsburgh Steelers move on from former first-round draft pick Kenny Pickett after just two seasons with the team?



Pittsburgh Steelers QB Kenny Pickett
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett walks down the tunnel at Acrisure Stadium before a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Omar Khan traded quarterback Kenny Pickett, the team’s first-round draft pick two seasons ago, to the Philadelphia Eagles for what amounts to a pile of loose change, moving up 22 picks in the third round of this year’s draft and getting two seventh-rounders next year.

But really, it wasn’t Khan that made the decision to move on from Pickett. That came from the Steelers themselves.

Pickett was given a long run as the team’s starting quarterback, playing 25 games before an ankle injury ended his 2023 season, and ultimately, his Steelers career.

After Pickett was injured, the Steelers first tried Mitch Trubisky, which was an abject failure, before Mike Tomlin went to Mason Rudolph in a last-ditch effort to save the team’s season.

It worked, with Rudolph playing well enough to lead the Steelers to consecutive wins, but not without drama.

Pickett was nearing a return by the time Tomlin made the decision, and wasn’t ruled out before Rudolph’s first start until the Friday before the Steelers hosted the Cincinnati Bengals on Dec. 23.

The following week, Pickett was cleared very late in the week, and as Steelers Now reported at the time, Tomlin had decided that he was starting Rudolph and that Trubisky would be the backup. Pickett refused to dress as the third-team quarterback.

He did dress as backup the following week, and in the playoffs against Buffalo, but did not appear in a game again.

When Tomlin decided to play Rudolph over a healthy Pickett, it was the beginning of the end. Tomlin is no Rudolph lover. He essentially did everything he could to keep Rudolph stapled to the bench throughout his Steelers tenure. 

When general manager Omar Khan said at the NFL Combine that he had “full faith” in Kenny Pickett, he wasn’t necessarily lying. Yes, the Steelers wanted to add to the room and provide competition, based on Pickett’s struggles in 2023. But until this week, that was still their intention, for Wilson and Pickett to compete for the starting job. The Steelers front office and coaching staff are patient people. They saw a bad offense run by Matt Canada and a potential for Pickett to grow and develop in a new scheme under Arthur Smith, who did have productive meetings with Pickett about the future of the offense.

Where it all fell apart was Pickett’s teammates. Perhaps it was just seeing what the team was capable of with even average quarterback play, like Rudolph provided. Perhaps it was a negative reaction to the way Pickett handled being sat down for Rudolph.

Either way, it has become clear since the end of the season that the Steelers’ locker room had lost faith in Kenny Pickett.

Diontae Johnson — no longer part of that locker room himself — made it clear in the immediate aftermath of the season, saying that he hoped Rudolph got the starting job.

Other players made their preference known more discreetly, but the damage was still done. New quarterback Russell Wilson talked on Friday about how Steelers defenders Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick lobbied Wilson to come to Pittsburgh.

That’s as clear of a sign as possible that the team itself did not want Pickett to be the starter.

Now, the Steelers as an organization aren’t going to let the opinions of the locker room dictate trading away a former first-round pick for peanuts, but the sentiment of his teammates likely factored into Pickett’s preference to be traded after Wilson signed.

Even if the veteran struggled — very plausible, by the way — there would be no pounding the table for Pickett from his teammates. He wasn’t going to get the opportunity that Rudolph did to rally the team around him. Wilson is only playing under a one-year contract, but it’s hard to envision Pickett regaining the mantle of starting quarterback in the future without the support of his teammates.

So he asked to leave, and the Steelers granted that request, sending him to a place in Philadelphia where he’s miles further from starting than he would have been in Pittsburgh. 

An ugly exit for a pick that once showed much promise, and an absolute reset of the Steelers’ search for their successor to Ben Roethlisberger.