5 for Friday: Pickett wasting no time getting back to work

Kenny Pickett is like a rolling stone. He doesn't want to gather any moss.

After a grueling past 18 months, Pickett took all of about three days off from working out at the conclusion of the Steelers' regular season before he started working out again, preparing himself for the 2023 season.

"I was getting a little bit antsy and my fiancé was like, 'You've got to get back to the gym,'" Pickett said this week. "So, I'm back in the gym, just getting some light work done. I need to do something every day or I'm not myself. It's good to get back in the gym with the Pitt guys and see some of my old teammates."

For NFL rookies, there is no more difficult year than the first one. They go from playing college football to preparing for the NFL Draft, to reporting to their new team, learning a new system and then playing in 20 or more football games.

It's a grind.

And that's just for regular position players. For a rookie quarterback who becomes his team's starter, the grind is even greater. There are production meetings with TV each week. Everyone wants a piece of your time. And you're expected to have full command of the offense and know what everyone else is doing. There really is no such thing as "free time."

But Pickett also knows what it is for which he signed up. He's an NFL quarterback, something he's wanted to be for a long time. It's also something he wants to be for a long time, as well.

As part of that, he wants to take the next step from a solid, if unspectacular rookie season that saw him complete 63 percent of his passes for 2,404 yards with seven touchdown passes and nine interceptions while also rushing for 237 yards and three more scores.

"I think full ownership of the offense," he said of the next step he needs to take individually. "When I first started this season, it was 'Alright, I get to play. A, B, C, the basics and move on to the next play.' Now, the more comfortable you get, you're seeing things a step faster. You're taking advantage of alert plays in the system that you can get more shot plays from.

"They're giving me more responsibility from that aspect of it and giving me the green light to go do more things. I think complete ownership of the system is really what I want to do. And that will take our offense to the next level."

The Steelers went 7-5 in Pickett's starts this season. And that was the most important statistic – wins. But there weren't enough of them to get the Steelers into the playoffs this season, largely thanks to the 2-6 hole in which the Steelers placed themselves with a slow start.

The team also finished the season on a 7-2 roll, however, and that can't be overlooked.

Pickett found himself watching last weekend's playoff games and wondering about what could have been.

"I watched a lot of them," he said of the slate of first-round playoff games. "You can always learn a lot from watching live games, especially playoff football. But, very disappointing that we didn't get in. We started playing our best football toward the end of the season. We just dug ourselves too big of a hole at the beginning."

Avoiding that slow start in 2023 will be critical. That's why Pickett isn't taking time off. He wants that mastery of the offense. He wants to hit the ground running in 2023.

The Steelers showed they have what it takes to win – if they play consistently. And Pickett is a big part of that.

"Like I said, we dug ourselves into a hole, but we fought ourselves into the playoff discussion," he said. "We can't dig ourselves into that much of a hole. But there are teams that start off hot that kind of simmer down at the end. We kind of picked it up at the end. We just have to be more consistent throughout."

• As a rookie, Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence threw just 12 touchdown passes in 17 games, That amounts to .7 touchdown passes every game. But, he also led the NFL with 17 interceptions.

Pickett threw seven touchdown passes in 12 starts this season, which was actually 11 starts when you consider he was knocked out of a game against the Ravens with a concussion after throwing just one pass.

That means he averaged .64 touchdown passes per game.

The difference is he threw nine interceptions, only six of which came in his starts. So, in reality, even taking the game at Acrisure Stadium against the Ravens out of the equation, Pickett averaged .55 interceptions per start.

Lawrence also averaged 214.2 passing yards per game as a rookie. In Pickett's 11 starts in which he played at least half the game – he also was knocked out of a win over Tampa Bay with a concussion – he averaged 207.6 passing yards per game. In his 10 full starts, he averaged 221.7 yards per game.

Other than the interceptions – which favor Pickett by far – Lawrence's numbers are very comparable to those of Pickett. And Lawrence completed just 59.6 percent of his passes compared to 63 percent for Pickett.

That's why there is so much optimism surrounding the play of Pickett this season. The expectation is that he'll make a big jump in 2023.

After all, Lawrence doubled his touchdowns and cut his interceptions in half from his first season to his second, while his completion percentage increased seven percentage points.

Also remember, the Jaguars won just three of Lawrence's 17 starts in 2021. The Steelers won seven of Pickett's starts this season.

Now, this is not to say Lawrence and Pickett are the same in terms of talent or anything of the sort. Lawrence, after all, was the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

But it does show the kind of leap a quarterback can make from Year 1 to Year 2.

One thing that is unquestioned are Pickett's leadership skills. That was obvious throughout his rookie season.

"There were ups and downs, just like any rookie season, there will be ups and downs," Pickett said. "I learned from the negatives early on and kind of eliminated them in the second half of the season, protecting the football, taking a lot of pride in that, putting points on the board and just finding ways to win games.

"Down the stretch, the two-minute (drills), learning how to do that at the pro level as opposed to the college level, there are different rules, the stoppage of the clock after first downs, things like that. There were things I was learning early on, and I was kind of eliminating those things in the second half. That's what I was most proud of."

• The biggest improvement Pickett can make is in the red zone.

He completed 18 of 46 passes in the Red Zone this season, a completion percentage of 39.1 percent. For a quarterback as accurate as Pickett has shown to be, that's obviously sub-par.

Take his Red Zone numbers out of the equation, and Pickett completed 226 of 343 passes, a percentage of 65.9 percent of his passes.

Pickett is a highly accurate passer. He'll get better in that area the same way he improved each season at Pitt under the tutelage of then-offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. Whipple a former Steelers quarterbacks coach, helped Pickett improve each season.

And the learning curve from high school to college is much more difficult than the one from college to the NFL.

"I'd say so," Pickett said. "In college, you're learning so much. Coming out of high school versus coming out of college, I had a good base level with Coach Whipple at Pitt. I'm grateful for the time we had together. He helped me get to this position and be prepared. Coming out of high school, I had unbelievable coaches in high school, but the game is just so different at the college level. The game is so different at the pro level. I definitely feel like I had a solid base coming from college."

Look at Buffalo's Josh Allen as an example of how quarterbacks and offenses get better from year-to-year.

In Allen's rookie season in Buffalo, he was a 46 percent passer (on just 26 attempts) in the Red Zone and the Bills averaged 16.8 points per game. In his second season, Allen completed 48 percent of his Red Zone passes (50 attempts) and the Bills scored 19.6 points per game.

In his third season, Allen completed 63.1 percent of his 85 Red Zone pass attempts and the Bills saw their scoring average jump to 31.3 points per game.

Buffalo's offensive coordinator in those three seasons was Brian Daboll. Daboll, now the head coach of the Giants and a front-runner for NFL Coach of the Year, didn't get smarter. Allen just got better.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

• Pickett is just so comfortable in his own skin. It's a real gift, and one that plays well with his teammates.

He doesn't get nervous, even in extreme situations, such as when he found out he was replacing Mitch Trubisky at quarterback at halftime of a Week 4 game against the Jets.

"I didn't even bring my helmet in at halftime, so I obviously didn't have any idea," Pickett said. "Coach (Matt) Canada said, 'We may be going to you.' Then, Coach (Mike Tomlin) was like, 'Yep, you're up.' I was like, 'OK.' I went out there early and started warming up."

Surprisingly, at least according to him, he wasn't nervous. Nor was he so the next week when he made his first career start in Buffalo against the Bills.

"I feel like I do a pretty good job of controlling the emotions," Pickett said. "I've been playing a long time. From the college level, I've had a lot of starts. You don't have time to be nervous when you're thrown in there in the middle of a game. I don't think either one. Either one was kind of the same. I get the butterflies before a game, but it's all positive."

• The Steelers made a shrewd signing this week when they brought wide receiver Anthony Miller back on a one-year contract.

Miller, 27, was having a strong training camp before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last August at Saint Vincent College. A former second-round pick of the Bears, he had 101 combined catches for 1,141 yards and four touchdowns in 2019 and 2020 for Chicago.

Miller also is an accomplished return man, averaging 11.0 yards per punt and 22.9 yards per kick return in the NFL.

It's the kind of under-the-radar signing that could pay dividends down the road.

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