With only Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool back in their rotation, Pittsburgh needed a receiver. The Steelers also have Anthony Miller, a veteran who signed waivers last season from Houston, and Miles Boykin, who was recently released by the Ravens. But they were determined to add premium talent to the mix. They found one in Pickens, who but for a preseason knee injury that cost him all but four games in 2021, likely would have been a 1st-round pick. The 6’3 Pickens have excellent ball skills and an elite ability to win in one-on-one situations. He’s explosive after the catch, possesses tenacity as a blocker, and is a nuanced road runner.
Pickens is also worried about his attitude and behavior. He was suspended twice in Georgia, and his focus and concentration were sometimes questioned. The Steelers drafted a player with a high cap who could become the steal of the 2nd round. He could also become another receiver who didn’t realize his potential in Pittsburgh.
Here’s a look at Pickens and how he could fit in with the Steelers.
The thing that immediately jumps out at Pickens is his deep ball ability. In his last 12 games at Georgia, Pickens caught 7 passes on throws 20+ yards beyond the line of scrimmage for 246 yards, or 35 yards per reception. Here is one, from the national championship against Alabama.
Pickens (#1) is split at the bottom of the screen at the start of the clip. He gets a clean exit from the corner – something Pickens will abuse if granted regularly – then smartly guards his post route inside the hash. The confusion of moving parts in the backfield creates complicated play action for the defense to diagnose, and without a safety to provide support, Pickens has a clean path to football. He ends the piece with a nice overhand grip:
I cannot stress enough the difficulty of this reception. Pickens’ ability to track the ball as it disappears over his left shoulder is exceptional. The area from the crown of the helmet to the point of contact at the hands is one of the hardest to follow when casting. Still, Pickens makes it look easy. Picking up deep balls is as natural as any receiver in this draft.
Speaking of difficult, check out this beauty, with Pickens lined up at the bottom of the screen:
Cincinnati lines up in media coverage but comes with a corner flash. They try to rotate safety to cover Pickens to the post. It won’t work — in college or in the NFL. Pickens, again, is just deadly if given space. As for the take at the end, it highlights his ability to follow the football and how well he uses his hands.
Pickens is also a solid road runner who understands how to set up defenders to open up. Going back to his take on Alabama, we see a great example of that. As Pickens crosses the 30-yard line, watch how he nods towards the boundary for the corner, which at this point is in a good position on Pickens’ hip, to straighten up. The nod suggests that Pickens could make some sort of cut, so the wedge is balancing out to protect against it. This allows Pickens to get inside and separate:
On the next one, Pickens again uses leverage to create space for himself. Lined up at the top of the stack on the right of Georgia’s formation, Pickens attacks the defender’s leverage from the driveway, forcing him to protect against a breaking road. Pickens then goes up the field and the driveway follows. To separate, Pickens swoops inside just before making his break on the border. The driveway drops with the jab, giving Pickens the chance to operate:
Pickens can also run against zone coverage. Here, lined up in the correct slot, he executes a perfect tilt against cover-2. I wrote at a recent movie theater about Miles Boykin about the difference between one slanted blanket vs. one vs. two blanket. With only one safety occupying the middle of the field, receivers want to keep their tilt “lean” or tighter at the post. Against a two-up, an oblique needs to be “fat,” meaning he needs to come flatter out of his break and more toward the middle of the court, between the safeties. Pickens does just that, splitting the safeties for the score:
These are more nuanced routes than you typically see at college receivers, especially ones that rely on speed to open up. The fact that Pickens uses speed in combination with technique makes him a dangerous player.
Finally, Pickens is a willful and physical blocker. Watch him here, split wide to the top of the formation, buckle the Cincinnati corner with a powerful two-handed strike to the chest. I love how Pickens brings his feet together on the approach and then rolls his hips out when he lands the punch. It’s like watching a good linebacker engage a point guard:
This one displays a pure Pickens effort. Watch him enter frame around the numbers at the 40-yard line and scramble to clip the containment defender, blasting the ball carrier for extra yards. Blocking, for wide receivers, is often a matter of effort. Pickens is a consistently reliable player in this area:
And then there are these two clips, which have been making the rounds on Twitter, where Pickens downright abuses the corner aligned to him. To say this young man is aggressive, as a blocker and otherwise, is an understatement:
Let’s start with temperament. Some say claims that Pickens is a hothead who can let his emotions get the better of him are overblown. It may be true. It’s hard to say, because such accusations are often speculative. But his ejection from a 2019 contest against Georgia Technology to fight with a Tech defensive back gives them credit.
We mentioned above that Pickens is an aggressive blocker. This aggression can have consequences if it is not directed correctly. It was a contest where Georgia was winning hands down at the time, but Pickens couldn’t restrain himself. His actions were both selfish, in that they hurt the team, and dangerous, considering punching an opponent in the helmet is a good way to break their hand:
To make matters worse, Pickens had already missed the first half of that contest while serving a suspension for breaking an undisclosed team rule. The ejection then cost him the first half of the following week’s game, which was the SEC Championship against USL.
Pickens was just a freshman at the time, and it’s fair to expect he grew from the experience. Still, getting Pickens to play with discipline will no doubt be one of receivers coach Frisman Jackson’s goals.
On the court, the biggest challenge Pickens faces may be breaking free from media coverage. His slender build will make him susceptible to being intimidated at the line of scrimmage by physical NFL corners. While he had success against press corners in college, many were afraid to be too aggressive for fear that Pickens would come his way. NFL corners won’t have such concerns, at least not initially.
One thing he can use to break free is his first quick step. Watch here how Pickens, circled at the top, beats LSU’s much-loved Derek Stingley Jr with a great inside move followed by an outside flurry. Although this is a running game, it shows that Pickens has the potential to neutralize corners down the line with his speed:
How Pickens affects the Steelers passing game
Pickens will likely be used as receiver X, lining up the ball on the weak side of the formation. This will allow him to operate away from cover forces, where he should draw a decent amount of man-to-man.
Pickens is also expected to become Pittsburgh’s top deep-ball threat. It’s a role they tried to give Chase Claypool last season. But Claypool, despite his 6’4 frame and excellent jumping ability, is largely a cradle-catcher, which means he catches the ball a lot against his body, which is not conducive to winning. disputed throws. Pickens, on the other hand, uses his hands extremely well. He climbs up and grabs the soccer ball, taking advantage of his long arms to create a huge grab radius. Combined with his speed and long stride, he should quickly become the best vertical threat on the roster.
This means that Claypool, when the Steelers have 11 staff with Pickens in the game, could be referred to more as the Z receiver. , he is asked to do various things. Last season Claypool was largely reduced to ‘Go’ routes and receiving screens. In the Z, he’ll be asked to execute digs, crossing routes, returns, turns, and the mesh and dagger concepts the Steelers use. Claypool expressed a desire to run a more advanced routing tree. With Pickens in the fold, it looks like he will get his wish.
The Steelers will also have some interesting options in the slot machine. Pickens played there in college at times, and Mike Tomlin has indicated he could be used in that capacity. Diontae Johnson is also expected to see slot representatives. Johnson is an exceptional road runner with excellent instincts for finding open areas in cover. He is a fast player, which makes him ideal for navigating crowded spaces in midfield. 4th round draft pick Calvin Austin III is a burner who should see time there as well. Austin will be the sweeping, bubble and gimmick threat that Canada loves on offense. There’s also Miller, who was primarily a slots player when he caught 140 passes with the Bears between 2018 and 2020. And, when the Steelers go to 12 staff, Freiermuth has shown he can be effective as a loose tight end. Canada can get creative with its formations given all of these options.
I suspect that as long as his knee is healthy and he’s digesting the playbook, Pickens will see the field quickly. He’s too dynamic a player and too skilled a deep threat to sit still for long. The Steelers have suddenly gotten exciting in the passing game, and it may not be long before “Pickett to Pickens” is the most exciting element of them all.