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Pickett Leading QB Class Full of Quetions

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Dave Holcomb discusses Pitt QB Kenny Pickett ahead of the NFL Draft.

It’s been nearly two decades since quarterbacks have gone first overall in five consecutive NFL drafts. Signal callers have gone No. 1 in the last four drafts, but it doesn’t appear likely that streak will continue in 2022.

In fact, this year could be the first draft since 2013 that a quarterback doesn’t hear his name called in the Top 5. Or even the Top 10.

But whenever those signal callers do begin to come off the board, Pitt’s Kenny Pickett should be one of the first. And despite the concerns surrounding Pickett and with drafting a quarterback this year, there’s still plenty to like with the Pitt signal caller.

Pickett began his career with the Panthers as a 3-star quarterback. He didn’t even look like a 3-star prospect in his first two college seasons, as he posted a completion percentage below 60%. Pickett also had a yards per attempt average of only 6.4 during his first year as a college starter.

But Pickett improved every year and blossomed into a star as a fifth-year senior. He threw for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns while completing 67.2% of his passes and averaging 8.7 yards per attempt. Last season, Pickett was ranked in the top six nationally in passing yards, yards per game and touchdowns.

Finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting, Pickett joined Baker Mayfield and Mac Jones as the only former 3-star quarterbacks over the last five years to place third or better for college football’s most coveted individual award.

Also similar to Mayfield, Pickett started multiple seasons in college. While NFL general managers and scouts valued that experience a lot more about 20 years ago, it should serve him well as he enters the NFL.

“Pickett has five years of game experience and four years of starting experience for Pitt. He’s a fairly toolsy pocket passer with good mobility,” NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote. “The top indicator for future success or failure will likely rest in a team’s ability to build Pickett’s trust, poise and discipline from the pocket. He can make all the throws, but he’ll only be able to execute against disguised fronts and NFL pressure if he’s willing to hang in and win with his eyes first.”

Pickett needing to improve his ability to read defenses has been a popular take among scouts this offseason.

“He is inconsistent with his timing on throws, often going one-and-done with his reads,” NFL scout Nate Tice of Bleacher Report wrote. “He will also end up late getting to a second option on a concept because he is guessing when the next route will become available.

“He has a tendency to stare down one available route and then look to start a scramble drill outside of the pocket at unnecessary times, which can lead to sacks and missed opportunities.”

But the fact Pickett has improved so much over the last four years should give NFL teams confidence he can continue to get better. In 2019, he recorded 3,098 passing yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 6.6 yards per pass.

That’s a far cry from his 2021 statistics.

Pickett threw for more touchdowns in 2021 than he did in his previous four college seasons combined.

That improvement only comes with hard work, so his work ethic is clearly not in question. In fact, it should be considered one of his strengths.

“It might not seem like a lot, but for someone who is already the presumed first quarterback off the board (and likely no less than the second), it says something to scouts and evaluators that he’s out there,” draft expert Todd McShay of ESPN wrote. “It’d be very easy to skip these parts of the workout, but Pickett has approached this process exactly how NFL teams want it done.

“It drives home what I’ve heard about his hardworking attitude.”

Other than the Peach Bowl, which he sat out, Pickett has performed this offseason every time he’s been eligible, participating in the Senior Bowl, NFL Combine and Pitt’s Pro Day.

Interestingly, there’s some discrepancy among the scouts in Pickett’s NFL upside. Zierlein labeled him a “boom/bust” prospect while McShay implied he’s more of a “safer” pick in this draft class. McShay wrote that team’s going for a higher-upside prospect will be more interested in Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, who might also need more time to develop at the next level than Pickett.

Maybe he doesn’t start right away, but Pickett seems to be the safest selection at quarterback in the 2022 class. That doesn't mean he’s a slam dunk – if he was, NFL scouts wouldn’t be debating if he was worth a Top 10 selection.

But the NFL general manager who drafts Pickett won’t be jeopardizing his job as much as the GM who selects Willis. Pickett is more likely to develop into a starter but never a Top 10 signal caller in the league.

That’s evident in the player comparisons scouts have mentioned for Pickett this offseason. Zierlein and NFL scouts at The Draft Network both compared Pickett to former second-round pick and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. Meanwhile, Tice of BR wrote Pickett compared to Taylor Heinicke.

Player comparisons for incoming rookies are intended to give fans an idea of playing style as opposed to a player’s upside. Still, those player comparisons for Pickett aren’t exactly ringing endorsements.

But when it really comes down to it, the most exciting aspect about Pickett is the way he played in 2021. He had a terrific season; one so special, it won’t be repeated at Pitt for a long time.

The question just becomes whether he can do that again at a higher level.

“If 2021 is an indication of what Pickett can be moving forward, then there is no doubt about his ability to become a franchise quarterback in the NFL,” wrote Joe Marino of The Draft Network. “With that said, blending all the layers of the evaluation together makes Pickett an interesting case study.”