Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett gave himself an excruciating offseason homework assignment.
If the Steelers' 25-year-old quarterback hoped to make the kind of leap necessary to lead his team back to the playoffs in his second NFL season, Pickett knew he needed to learn from his most recent mistakes.
"He watched every single incompletion he threw last year and took notes on it," Tony Racioppi, Pickett's personal quarterbacks coach, told FanBuzz.
During those hours in the darkness of the film room, Pickett put each of his 144 incompletions from his 13 appearances as a rookie last season under a microscope. His aim was to not only prevent making the same mistakes again but also to find the nuances in each play that could set the foundation for a breakout 2023 campaign.
"He was looking for themes," Racioppi explained. "Every time I have to climb the pocket and look for a second-level throw, do I sail the ball? Is there a common thing? Are there five or six of those? That's how you start your program. ... Let's fix the issues I had last year from a fundamental standpoint."
Those hours of film study and self-scouting became the blueprint for what Pickett and Racioppi set out to build on, and improve, ahead of the 2023 NFL season. But how high is the ceiling for Pickett and the Steelers this fall? What aspects of Pickett's skill set will fuel the second-year leap he hopes to make? FanBuzz spoke to those closest to Pickett, and sources around the NFL, to find out.
Back on the field, after adding 13 pounds of muscle from his 220-pound playing weight when he arrived at Pittsburgh, Pickett spent countless hours drilling fundamentals, refining each aspect of his throwing motion, reviewing every step of his progressions scanning the field, and the nuance of each play call.
"He really hit the offseason," Racioppi pointed out. "Kenny went into last year, coming off draft-prep, just light, because he was trying to run good times and do all the things you want to do at the Combine. This year, we really hammered the fundamentals in the offseason for a good solid six months, and he learned the playbook, learned what's going on, and he's gotten to throw with the first- and second-team guys that he didn't really get to last year until he was in games playing. He got himself better, and he's so much more comfortable in that situation there."
Kenny Pickett's 'Obsessive Desire to Be Great'
Not everyone is convinced that Pickett will follow in the footsteps of the likes of Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, who all made strides in their second season before taking their place among the NFL's elite quarterbacks.
As a rookie, Pickett completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,404 yards with seven touchdowns but also nine interceptions while leading the Steelers to a record of just 7-5 in the games that he started.
Pickett will face an uphill climb if he is going to lead the Steelers through the AFC's gauntlet that includes the likes of Mahomes, Burrow, Herbert, Josh Allen and Russell Wilson, to name just a few, who have elite and battle-tested rosters around them. But if Pickett fails to reach the summit, if the Steelers don't lift a seventh Lombardi in coming years, it won't be for lack of effort.
"I just think he's ordinary at everything," an AFC offensive coordinator told FanBuzz, on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about another team. "I just hope that he has a dominant and competitive side ... And a brilliant mind."
Few people know Pickett better than Donny Klein, who coached him at Ocean Township High School in Oakhurst, New Jersey. For Klein — who has known Pickett since he was 11 years old — it was obvious from an early age that the Steelers quarterback resoundingly checks those final two boxes the offensive coordinator is looking for.
"I don't think you can underestimate somebody's desire to be great," Klein told FanBuzz. "Kenny's desire to be great, and I used to refer to it as an obsession."
During his high school career, Pickett passed for 4,670 yards with 43 touchdowns while rushing for 873 yards and adding 17 more scores. However, more than what can be measured by any statistic or gleaned from any win-loss record, Klein says it's been apparent for some time that Pickett had the potential to do special things.
"Obviously you have to have the talent," Klein explained. "There has to be an ability to push the ball vertically, be accurate with your passes, obviously his athleticism, the ability to make plays with his feet — all that stuff has to go into it. But what separates Kenny and will continue to separate Kenny is his desire to be great."
This offseason, Pickett channeled that drive into radically altering his throwing motion, and taking the lessons learned from film and turning them into tangible changes in his mechanics that he hopes will result in a far more consistent performance this season.
"[It started with] the top of his drop," Racioppi said. "In his footwork, he's getting more bounce at the top. He has a big baseball background, was a really good high school baseball player, so at times he'd rely on his legs too much to throw hard rather than being a rotational thrower.
"I will say that throwing the ball to the second level, your third level, your digs and your comeback levels, those kind of throws being more comfortable throwing the ball in sequence. And, keeping a really good base climbing the pocket."
Steelers' Situation, Supporting Cast Perfect for Kenny Pickett
Few things are more meaningful to a young quarterback's development than early playing time, and continuity of coach and scheme.
Pickett has both, entering his second season after winning his final three starts and five of his last six in 2022. Over the strong closing stretch of the season, Pickett passed for 978 yards with four touchdowns to just one interception while rushing for 74 yards during that span.
Most importantly, but somewhat controversially, Pittsburgh is sticking with offensive coordinator Matt Canada. That means Pickett will get to pick up where he left off without needing to learn a new system, as some quarterbacks have been forced to do early in their careers.
"I think it's huge," Racioppi said. "So much of what we do as a quarterback is 'Where do my eyes go, and what am I seeing?' The more you can rep that out with the guys you're going to throw balls to in season, the more comfortable you're going to be.
"It's understanding the pass concepts, understanding everything you could possibly see, because the more you do it, the better you're going to get at it. He's always been quick that way, very rarely makes the same mistake twice. The things he learned last year, he can still apply this year as well."
One of the things Pickett will be seeing a lot of is No. 14 in black and gold stretching the field.
After choosing Pickett No. 20 overall in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Steelers came back 32 selections later and picked dynamic playmaking wide receiver George Pickens in the second round, rounding out a duo that the organization hopes will help rekindle Pittsburgh's glory days.
Pickens pulled down 52 receptions in 84 targets for 801 yards with four touchdowns and only four drops as a rookie. According to Pro Football Focus, Steelers quarterbacks produced a whopping 109.3 passer rating when looking in his direction.
The Pickett-to-Pickens connection has the chance to pay significantly higher dividends in their second year together.
"That's absolutely critical [to Kenny's development]," Klein says. "It's huge. That's one of the things we spoke about going into the draft process was wherever Kenny ended up, we were hoping that the team would also take a young playmaker that he could grow with and develop with."
Much as A.J. Brown in Philadelphia changed everything for Jalen Hurts, and Tua Tagovailoa ascended up the quarterback ranks in Miami once Tyreek Hill arrived, Pickens and Pickett growing together has the potential to rival the chemistry continuing to be forged across the Ohio River in Cincinnati between Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase.
"Obviously, George is extremely talented," Klein says. "Kenny raves about his athleticism, he's called him the most athletic player he's ever played with. So, to have that type of ability and catch radius, and the ability to grow with that person early on in your career, I think we're going to see great things from the two of them over the course of the next decade."
Having a weapon on the perimeter like Pickens creates opportunities for the entire offense, and that was another point of emphasis in Pickett and Racioppi's months of training.
"We scramble for two reasons," Racioppi points out. "The first one is the obvious one, and that's because of pressure. The second is, if everyone is covered, you're trying to extend the play and almost start a new play within the play. So, a lot of times last year, either Kenny left the pocket too early or he had to leave the pocket because he had to restart the play again by scrambling and hopefully letting guys break off their routes and find space. Those were the main things we worked at."
The fruit of all the labor behind the scenes this offseason is already revealing itself during an impressive preseason performance from Pickett.
Through the Steelers' first two exhibition games, Pickett boasts a wildly impressive 149.1 passer rating while passing for 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
It could be a harbinger of things to come for Pickett.
"I don't think anyone sees him as a top-tier guy right now," an AFC East offensive coach told FanBuzz. "But the lack of expectations will help him develop, he'll have room to grow, and room to learn without the spotlight on him.
"They're also going to push the ball deep a lot, with Pickens, and he has a big arm, so some big plays will highlight his upside."
Klein and Racioppi agree that Pickett's stat line at season's end won't determine whether 2023 was a success. That judgment will come down to how many games the Steelers win and if Pickett can guide Pittsburgh into the postseason for the first time. They believe he can.
"Kenny has always had an unwavering confidence in himself," Klein says. "His ability to be a great teammate, his ability to step up in pressure situations, those are things that Kenny has always had. I think we'll continue to see him on a positive trajectory over the course of his NFL career, because of how passionate he is about being great."
If Pickett can harness his competitive drive, and limit the turnovers and incompletions he spent hours agonizing over this offseason, there's a belief inside the league that the Steelers have set their young quarterback up for success.
"Kenny's a solid quarterback," an AFC South scouting director told FanBuzz. "He needs players around him to be a top-tier player, but they've done that. He has a solid arm, is a good athlete, and a competitor. He certainly has all the good intangibles of a winning type quarterback."
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