Why Kenny Pickett could be this year's Justin Herbert — if the Steelers let him play as a rookie

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The Steelers entered the 2022 NFL offseason with questions at the quarterback position for the first time in nearly two decades. Ben Roethlisberger had long been entrenched as the team's starter, but he retired after guiding Pittsburgh to the AFC's No. 7 seed in his final year.

As such, the Steelers went quarterback shopping in both free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft. They picked up two players — Mitch Trubisky and first-round rookie Kenny Pickett — to compete with Mason Rudolph for the starting job.

The competition was fierce, as each player enjoyed a solid preseason for the Steelers, but many NFL fans were most impressed with what they saw from Pickett. As a result, they believed Pittsburgh would roll with him as a starter right away.

But Pickett's moment hasn't come yet.

Trubisky is starting his third game for the Steelers in Week 3 against the Browns. He hasn't been great thus far, but the veteran is coach Mike Tomlin's preferred starter for the time being.

That said, if the Steelers falter at any point in the coming weeks, Pickett could be given a chance to take the reins from Trubisky. If he does, his insertion into the lineup could mirror the effect that Justin Herbert's had for the Chargers after he replaced Tyrod Taylor early in the 2020 season.

Here's why Pickett's upside in the Steelers' offense is so high.

DeCOURCY: History of rookie QBs starting in NFL shows mixed results

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How Kenny Pickett's rookie situation with Steelers compares to Justin Herbert's with Chargers

Pickett is facing a situation similar to the one that Herbert faced during his rookie year in Los Angeles. Both quarterbacks were first-round selections, but neither was gifted the starting job despite having the resources around him to have success.

So, why didn't Herbert and Pickett win the jobs right away? There were myriad factors that impacted them.

Coaches wanted the rookie to sit and develop

Neither Pickett nor Herbert entered their rookie years as the starter for their respective teams. Both of their coaches — Mike Tomlin and Anthony Lynn — were open about wanting to give their young, first-round picks time to develop before throwing them into the NFL fire.

In 2020, Lynn steadfastly committed to Tyrod Taylor as the Chargers' starter. His focus in doing so was on the reps that Herbert lost during the pandemic-shortened offseason; it was also about protecting the team's top draft selection from starting before he was ready.

"A lot of young quarterbacks come into this league and they struggle when you throw them in there and they need to play right away," Lynn said in October of 2020 when discussing whether Herbert or Taylor would start. "So I’ve got to balance throwing him in there right away into the fire or letting him sit, watch, and learn like Patrick Mahomes did. And that’s something that I’m evaluating."

Tomlin was a bit more open about Pickett competing for the job during the 2022 season. He hyped up the Steelers' three-man quarterback competition during training camp and the preseason but ultimately chose to go with Mitch Trubisky as his starter.

While Tomlin was complimentary of Pickett, Fox Sports' Jay Glazer reported before Week 1 of the 2022 season that the Steelers coach would prefer to let him learn on the sidelines during his rookie campaign.

"I talked to Mike again this morning about it and he said, 'Look, this is Trubisky’s team.'" Glazer said. “His plan is to sit Kenny Pickett all season long, and just let him sit and learn in his rookie season."

That lines up with what Tomlin said after he named Trubisky the starter. He acknowledged that he was impressed with the "acceleration of [Pickett's] development" but thought he could continue to grow on the bench.

"I think it's reasonable to expect [Pickett's] growth and development to continue as we push into the regular season," he said.

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Stuck behind middling veteran starters, Mitch Trubisky and Tyrod Taylor

So, both Herbert and Pickett began the season as backups. That's one similarity. The other similarity is that the duo weren't exactly behind world-beaters at the quarterback position.

In 2020, the Chargers had Taylor as their starting quarterback. The Steelers have Trubisky in 2022. These quarterbacks aren't necessarily bad, but they were certainly among the NFL's weaker Week 1. starters during the years in question. The quarterbacks can win games, but teams are more likely to earn victories with them (or in spite of them) than because of them.

Trubisky and Taylor are cut from a similar cloth. They are both mobile starters and used their legs to make plays before getting a chance to start for a second NFL team. Both had winning records as a starter and while Taylor was a bit less accurate than Trubisky, the latter was more turnover prone.

Below is a comparison of their career numbers before they took over as starters for the Chargers and Steelers respectively.

Player Record Comp. % Passing yards Pass TDs INTs Rating Rushing yards Rush TDs
Tyrod Taylor ('11-19) 23-21-1 61.6 9,562 50 24 89.8 1,843 18
Mitch Trubisky ('17-21) 29-21 64.1 10,652 64 38 87 1,081 9

Again, these numbers aren't bad, and in the right situation, the quarterbacks can help their team earn wins. The issue is that they don't have as high a ceiling as the rookie passers that were behind them; as such, they can be overtaken if they struggle to generate splash plays.

Herbert was able to overtake Taylor quickly due to a freak injury that Taylor suffered while getting a pregame injection. The doctor missed his mark while giving Taylor a shot to the chest, which punctured his lung. Herbert was forced into action in Week 2 and never looked back.

Pickett's path won't be quite as clear barring an injury to Trubisky. But if Trubisky struggles as he has in his first two games as the starter — he has completed just 59.2 percent of his passes for 362 yards two touchdowns and an interception to date — then Pickett should at least draw some starting consideration from Tomlin.

MORE: How a clerical error led Kenny Pickett to be listed as Steelers' No. 3 quarterback

Offenses are loaded with weapons

One of the reasons that Herbert was able to find success early in his days with the Chargers was that the team had a loaded offense. They had some problems on the offensive line in the same way that the Steelers do, but Herbert could overcome those thanks to his top-tier pass-catching support.

Herbert had four players that he could target consistently and get results. They were as follows:

  • WR Keenan Allen
  • WR Mike Williams
  • TE Hunter Henry
  • RB Austin Ekeler

Allen served as Herbert's top target while Henry was his middle-of-the-field security blanket. He used Ekeler frequently as a check down but wasn't afraid to take shots downfield to the big-bodied Williams.

That diverse, talented cast of weapons helped accelerate Herbert's development, as he was able to throw to targets who could consistently get open. And it's something that the Steelers can replicate with relative ease thanks to solid drafting on offense in recent seasons.

Here is a look at the players with which the Steelers could support Pickett:

  • WR Diontae Johnson
  • WR Chase Claypool
  • WR George Pickens
  • TE Pat Freiermuth
  • RB Najee Harris

Johnson and Claypool have already proven themselves to be explosive receivers and found success last season even while working with Ben Roethlisberger. Pickens is a bit more of a wild card, but the rookie was explosive during the preseason, making some terrific plays in the end zone.

Meanwhile, Freiermuth has great size and has established himself as a middle-of-the-field presence for Trubisky. And Harris caught 74 passes in 2021, so he can certainly be a capable checkdown artist this season, too.

It's worth noting that the Steelers' offense may look better on paper than it currently does in practice. Johnson, Claypool and Pickens are all averaging 2.3 yards or less of separation per route or fewer currently, which is on the lower end of the league-wide spectrum.

That said, Pickett was accurate and impressive in the preseason, completing 80.6 percent of his passes for 261 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. As such, he may be able to take better advantage of the Steelers' wideouts than Trubisky if his accuracy and ball placement continue to be strong.

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Kenny Pickett scouting report vs. Justin Herbert scouting report

It's tough to compare Pickett to Herbert at the NFL level considering that the former hasn't yet played in a game. However, they carried a similar prospect pedigree coming into the NFL, so it's easy to imagine Pickett developing into a quality starter at the NFL level — even if he doesn't reach the borderline elite status of Herbert.

Both Pickett and Herbert were four-year starters during their college days. Pickett actually played five years at Pitt thanks to an extra COVID year; Herbert surprised many by opting to return to school for his senior year instead of entering the 2019 NFL Draft, which was considered weak at quarterback.

The experience for both Pickett and Herbert allowed them to showcase plenty of year-to-year improvement that helped establish them as first-round picks. They also showcased their skills over a larger sample size than most of their draft-eligible peers, and that makes the similarities within their scouting reports even eerier.

MORE: Breaking down the highlights, best plays from Kenny Pickett's preseason debut

NFL.com's Lance Zierlein noted that Pickett and Herbert both had strong arms, good mobility and an ability to operate within the pocket that only a select amount of college quarterbacks develop. He noted a couple of key differences between the two, but it's hard to read his summations of each without seeing some parallels. 

Here is what Zierlein wrote about Herbert in 2020:

Big, talented full-field scanner able to find the right read and sling it around the yard from the pocket or on the move. Herbert rushed throws in 2018, but he showed marked improvement in that area, excluding the Auburn opener. He trusts his protection while working through coverages and route development and has big-boy arm talent and drive velocity to stress and impress defenses. He's confident attacking downfield, but touch throws evade him and may have created tentativeness with certain short and intermediate throws. Ball placement requires additional emphasis, but upgrading to NFL skill talent could help him bloom. Herbert has a high ceiling and is the most physically gifted quarterback in the draft, but he doesn't have as many 'wow' plays as expected for someone with his traits, experience and potential.

And here is what he wrote about Pickett in 2022:

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. He operated in a passing scheme featuring vertical concepts that created big-play opportunities but left food on the plate when he failed to play chess against the back-end of the coverage. Pickett works with average anticipation but drives the ball with good velocity, which should help him shine in pre-draft passing drills. Pickett's touch and placement need work, but his accuracy stats were damaged by an inordinate amount of drops throughout his career. 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. He carries a boom/bust label, but the 2021 tape and productivity showed off his potential to become a good starter in time.

Essentially, the largest difference between these two passers was that Herbert was better at reading the field than Pickett. Each came with slight concerns about accuracy and ball placement but had the arm talent needed to develop into a quality starting quarterback, in Zierlein's opinion.

The similarities don't stop with the duo's skill set. They posted similar stats during their college careers as well. Below is a look at how the two compared during their four years as starters at Oregon (Herbert) and Pitt (Pickett) respectively.

Player Games Comp. % Pass yards Pass TDs INTs Rating Rush yards Rush TDs
Justin Herbert 43 64 10,541 95 23 153.1 560 13
Kenny Pickett 42 62.5 11,794 80 31 136.3 716 18

Certainly, Herbert was a bit more efficient through the air, logging a better completion percentage and fewer turnovers, but Pickett still racked up plenty of yardage. He also was a bit more productive as a scrambler.

Either way, it would seem that Pickett has a high ceiling. Is it as high as Herbert's? Probably not, but there is no doubting that he has potential as a starter.

Of course, there's no guarantee that Pickett will reach his ceiling quickly — or at all — even after a strong preseason. Remember, Daniel Jones enjoyed a great rookie preseason; four years later, he is still searching for footing as a starter.

Still, Pickett has the makings of a dynamic player at the quarterback position. And if he develops at a fast rate like Herbert did, that could make him a plug-and-play upgrade over Trubisky in short order.

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When will the Steelers play Kenny Pickett?

At this point, it's anybody's guess as to when the Steelers will play Pickett. Glazer's report indicated that Tomlin wants Pickett to sit the whole season, but the veteran coach could be forced to put him in the lineup at some point if Trubisky falters.

That said, it would make logical sense for the Steelers to put in Pickett when they have extra time to prepare for a game. Given their schedule, they would have two times that they could do this.

One would be during the team's Week 10 game against the Saints, which comes after their Week 9 bye.

IYER: Breaking down when Kenny Pickett might start for the Steelers

The other would be during the mini-bye after their Thursday night game against the Browns in Week 3.

If Trubisky struggles against the Browns and the Steelers can't find a way to win, that will give Tomlin something to at least think about heading into Week 4. He would have extra time to prepare Pickett to face the Jets — a solid opponent against which Pickett could begin his career — and potentially provide the team with an upgrade.

But is Tomlin willing to pull the plug on Trubisky that soon? It doesn't seem likely given the confidence he has expressed in his veteran quarterback.

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Jacob Camenker is a senior content producer at The Sporting News.
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