Once upon a time, NFL teams that made moves up in the first round of a draft generally did so to pick a quarterback. Once upon a time, an NFL Draft was defined by the number of quarterbacks drafted in the first round and how high those selections were made.
Luckily for the Steelers, and especially their fans who were laser-focused on the team adding a quarterback to replace the retired Ben Roethlisberger, the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft was all about the wide receivers.
When the first round concluded with the Minnesota Vikings selecting Georgia safety Lewis Cine, six of the first 32 picks were wide receivers; on two separate occasions teams traded up in the round to get into position to pick a wide receiver; and the two trades executed on Thursday night that involved active NFL players both included a wide receiver as the major piece in the transaction.
The flip side of this emphasis on the guys catching the passes meant there was less action surrounding the guys throwing them, which meant when the Steelers went on the clock to spend the 20th overall selection of the first round, they had their pick of any quarterback in this draft. To hear the Steelers tell the story, what came next was the easy part.
"You know, it's interesting," said Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin, "we circled the globe, or at least the United States, over the last several months, just exploring and researching, and it's funny, we ended up with a guy from next door."
The Steelers and the Pitt Panthers share the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex as their training complex, and it's just a typical day at work for players and coaches from one of the teams to catch a glimpse of the other on the practice field, or bump into their neighbor in the parking lot on the way in or out of their half of the facility. The proximity makes casual contact easy and regular, and all of it breeds a certain familiarity.
It's nothing unusual to see Tomlin sitting among some Pitt players on a wooden bench adjacent to the practice fields shooting the breeze as one of the teams is set to begin its on-field work as the other heads into the facility with its day completed.
"I make it my business to kind of get to know those guys just to be neighborly, just to encourage them," said Tomlin about this regular casual contact. "I've known (Pickett) for several years now, whether it's in the parking lot or what have you, wishing him good luck on a big upcoming game that week, neighborly type things, in a very natural way, like I've done with those who have come before him."
Take a look at photos of the Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick QB Kenny Pickett
And to hear Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert talk about some of the qualities that drew them to Pickett with the 20th overall pick, one of the recurring themes was the amount of time he had spent in the Pitt program.
"You watch him grow over the years, and sometimes we're more critical of the Pitt guys because we've watched them grow from freshmen on up," said Colbert. "We get a little too critical at times, and we talk about that. Some of the other kids, the other players, we catch them in their sophomore, junior years and you don't get to see them quite as much.
"But honestly, Kenny developed, obviously had a great senior year, and it was a good move for him to stay in school. It just speaks to what you can do when you stay and continue to develop and turn into a first-round pick. Kenny is special, and he grew – like I said, we watched him come in as a freshman. You knew who he was, and when he became (Pitt's) starter, you just continued to watch him grow into the great season that he had (in 2021)."
Pitt's 2020 season was impacted/shortened by COVID, and in the team's nine games Pickett completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 2,408 yards, with 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Pickett was eligible to enter the 2021 draft, but he elected to take advantage of the NCAA's decision to allow players to get a re-do for what they lost as a result of the pandemic, and things couldn't have worked out better for him and his future or for his team and what it was able to accomplish.
Pitt won the ACC Championship in 2021, and it wouldn't have happened had Pickett not completed 67.2 percent of his passes for 4,319 yards, with 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions. While not a dual threat quarterback by any definition, Pickett still exhibited the ability to use his legs to buy some time in the pocket to make plays in some situations and scramble for positive yardage on the occasions when the opposing defense offered him a lane to escape the pass rush.
"I think he continued to grow (from 2020 to 2021)," said Colbert. "Coach Tomlin talked about his mobility. Sure, he can create plays, but he finds receivers when he's creating. He's not necessarily going to scramble for 40 yards, for 50 yards, but he may buy a little time to his left and still be able to throw it back to his right, and there's no panic in the young man, and that's really exciting. I think he grew into like a first-year NFL player for Pitt Coach (Pat) Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, just a mature player at that position who obviously helped Pitt, and we're hopeful he helps us."
It quickly became apparent that this 2022 first round was going to be unique, because it marked the first time since 1991 that the picking opened with teams selecting five straight defensive players. After a couple of offensive linemen were selected sixth and seventh, Atlanta broke the ice and picked USC's Drake London eighth overall, and the run on wide receivers began.
Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Jameson Williams were picks 10, 11, and 12, and then came the trades. Baltimore traded veteran receiver Marquise Brown to Arizona for the Cardinals 23rd overall pick in the round, and then Tennessee traded veteran receiver A.J. Brown to the Eagles for the 18th overall pick in the draft and used that slot to select Arkansas wide receiver Treylon Burks. The Eagles promptly announced they had agreed with A.J. Brown on a four-year, $100 million extension.
While NFL fans might have been mesmerized by these events, both the Steelers and Pickett were scanning the upcoming picks and trying to figure out how the board might shape up once it came time for the Steelers to pick.
"I had a pretty good feeling when it got to No. 20 that that would be the call," said Pickett. "As soon as the Saints pick went in (at No. 19), I got the call (from the 412 area code). My dad saw, my fiancée saw, so we were all incredibly excited for it. I honestly just broke down. Like I said before, and I'm just repeating myself, but it's my life's work in one phone call. It's really special."
The addition of Pickett gives the Steelers three young quarterbacks with plenty of time to add the fourth they typically will take to training camp. With Mason Rudolph and Mitch Trubisky both young veterans with NFL starting experience, Pickett won't be asked or necessarily expected to start as a rookie, but because it's the NFL he also won't be allowed to coast through an automatic redshirt year either.
"I'm pretty familiar with competing," said Pickett. "I've been doing it my whole life, so I know how to be a good teammate and also compete at the same time. I'm excited to join the quarterback room, get to know those guys and honestly just get better every day. We're all chasing a championship, so at the end of the day that's all that matters. That's what I'm excited to go do."
Pickett ended up being the only quarterback drafted during Thursday's first round, and being the 20th overall selection marked the latest for the first quarterback to come off the board since San Francisco picked Virginia Tech's Jim Druckenmiller 26th overall in the 1997 NFL Draft.
"I thought the board was pretty open to be honest," added Pickett. "I had a range of about No. 6 to No. 20 that I felt like was the range I could go in. I was just waiting for the call. When I saw that 412-number though, I was kind of overwhelmed with emotions, and it was just unbelievable. I can't wait to go next door."