Monday, May 23, 2022

Five things to watch during Steelers’ rookie minicamp: Kenny Pickett begins preparation for QB battle

Kenny Pickett and the rest of the Steelers‘ rookies are about to get their first taste of the NFL. Pittsburgh will conduct its rookie minicamp from May 13-15. It will be a chance for the rookies to get acclimated to their new environment before the rest of the Steelers join them for mandatory minicamp, which will run from June 7-9. 

Much is expected of Pittsburgh’s rookie class. Pickett will compete with Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph to be the Steelers’ new starting quarterback. George Pickens and Calvin Austin III will be tasked with filling the voids left by the JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington departures in free agency. The Steelers are hoping that DeMarvin Leal can bring a youthful fire to Pittsburgh’s veteran defensive line. 

Let’s take a look at the five things Steelers fans should keep an eye on during minicamp. 

Pickett’s poise 

It seems like everyone has an opinion on the Steelers’ first-round pick. Richard Sherman recently questioned Pickett’s decision to wear gloves on both of his hands in college. Speaking of hands, Pickett’s hand size was constantly scrutinized leading up to the draft. This didn’t stop the Steelers from making Pickett the first quarterback selected in the draft. 

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and outgoing GM Kevin Colbert said after the draft that Pickett was the most pro ready of the available quarterbacks in the draft. Pickett showed plenty of promise at Pitt, where he put up prolific numbers last season while helping the Panthers capture the ACC title. Along with his tangible skills, Tomlin said he feels that Pickett possesses the intangible skills necessary to have success as a starting quarterback in Pittsburgh. 

Pickett’s overall poise and command of the huddle is something the coaches will certainly be watching over the course of the summer. From a technical standpoint, Pickett has already begun working on the quickness of his release. Being able to get rid of the ball fast, and accurately, is a necessity for an NFL starting quarterback. Just ask Tom Brady, who has made a career out taking what the defense gives him before taking his calculated shots. 

Pickett to Pickens 

Steelers fans of a certain age may remember Carl Pickens, a receiver who earned multiple Pro Bowl nods while starring for the Bengals during the 1990s. Pittsburgh’s brass would certainly welcome similar production from George Pickens (no relation), the team’s second-round selection out of Georgia. 

Pickens’ upside was one of the reasons why the Steelers selected him over other receivers who were still on the board. He caught 85 passes and 14 touchdowns during his first two seasons at Georgia before he suffered a serious knee injury last spring. Instead of shutting it down and preparing for the draft, Pickens returned to help the Bulldogs capture their first national title in over 40 years. He showcased his big-play ability by pulling down a 52-yard pass in Georgia’s win over Alabama in the College Football title game.

It’s too early to depict whether or not Pickens will be able to challenge Chase Claypool to be the Steelers’ No. 2 receiver. But developing a quick rapport with Pickett would go a long way in helping him get more targets later this summer, especially if Pickett is able to win the starting job. How quickly these two mesh is something to keep an eye on during rookie camp. 

The ‘other’ rookie WR 

There seems to be a wide range of opinions regarding Calvin Austin III, who was selected with the 138th overall pick. Austin’s size (he’s listed at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds) undoubtedly led some fans to flash back to Dri Archer, a 2014 third-round pick who lasted just two years in Pittsburgh. Like Archer, Austin parlayed his speed into a successful college career. During his final two years at Memphis, Austin caught 19 touchdowns while scoring two more touchdowns on punt returns. 

Versatility is one of the things Tomlin mentioned regarding Austin. Along with possibly running jet sweeps, Tomlin said that he can possibly envision Austin playing on the outside as well as in the slot, where shorter receivers typically line up. Like Pickens, Tomlin says that Austin has physical qualities that aren’t typical of a player of his size. It will be interesting to see how they use Austin during the early portions of camp. Furthermore, early flashes of potential from Austin would help quell any outside concerns about his lack of size. 

New Heyward in town 

Despite Derek Watt already on the roster, it wasn’t a total surprise when the Steelers selected Connor Heyward on Day 3 of the draft. Along with his family ties (his older brother is Steelers Pro Bowl defensive tackle Cam Heyward), Connor Heyward is more of an H-back who played multiple positions during his time at Michigan State. Heyward’s versatility should help create more options in second-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s playbook. 

Pittsburgh has a history of selecting H-back type players. In 2018, they spent a fifth-round pick on NC State’s Jaylen Samuels. While technically listed as a tight end, the Steelers used Samuels as a running back. Samuels had his moments during his three seasons in Pittsburgh; he had over 140 rushing yards in a 2018 win over the Patriots and had 73 receptions and four touchdown catches during his first two years with the Steelers. 

Along with his versatility, Colbert said that the Steelers were extremely impressed with Heyward’s receiving ability, especially for a player of his size. Conner, who caught a pivotal touchdown pass in Michigan State’s win of Pitt in this past December’s Peach Bowl, will undoubtedly look to show this skill off during minicamp while helping the Steelers find a role for him within the offense. 

Fresh faces on defense 

Defense took a back seat in this draft, but that doesn’t mean that the defensive players the Steelers selected aren’t expected to play significant roles in 2022. Leal comes to Pittsburgh after racking up 8.5 sacks last fall at Texas A&M. Linebacker Mark Robinson, a Day 3 pick, tallied 91 tackle and three sacks last season for Ole Miss. A former running back who didn’t play linebacker until last fall, Robinson’s upside is one of the things that attract him to the Steelers and senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach Brian Flores. 

Like several of Pittsburgh’s other rookies, versatility is one of the biggest things the Steelers like about Leal, who played across the defensive line during his time with the Aggies. Leal’s versatility will surely come in handy for a defensive line that struggled to stop the run last season. 

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