NFL Draft – Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett is a test in not judging a book by its cover. Pickett, who turns 24 in June, leaves school as a fifth-year senior and four-year starter. He has started nearly 50 college games and thrown almost 1,700 passes, surpassing even fellow super-senior Desmond Ridder by over 300 attempts. Nobody in the 2022 class boasts the same in-game experience that Pickett does. That kind of profile at face value may suggest a ready-made prospect, but Pickett’s projection is more complicated than that.
Despite taking the starting job early on, Pickett did not come alive until his fifth year. Pickett topped out at 13 touchdowns—yes, really—and 7.3 yards per attempt in his first three seasons as a starter. Of course, offensive line woes and middling receiver talent did not help during those years, but one would assume a future-first round pick could show more life than that over that large a sample. There’s no denying Pickett’s leap to 42 touchdowns and 8.7 yards per attempt in 2021 is impressive, but when you peel back the layers off his film, it becomes clear why it may have taken Pickett so long to set the ACC ablaze.
As always, Football Outsiders’ 2022 NFL draft coverage is presented by Underdog Fantasy!
Pickett is more playmaking and flare than processing and discipline. He wins with quality arm strength, the ability to extend plays outside the pocket, and moments of immaculate touch, particularly on the move. He is a wheel-and-deal kind of quarterback who bucks the structure of the offense more than he should, like a Rust Belt mutation of Johnny Manziel. Pickett may not possess the sexiest blend of physical talents, but his arm talent and athleticism each clear the bar and he has his own way of making those skills work in tandem to produce some exciting plays.
Pickett’s arm strength is slightly above average. It is not special by any stretch, but he can get enough RPMs, throw to the boundary, and get proper arc on deep passes. What kicks Pickett’s arm talent up a notch are his flashes of outrageous ball placement. Pickett’s best throws are as pretty as anyone’s in the class. Pickett has the ability to drive the ball well while still maintaining control and the ability to feather the ball in just right. In the clip above, Pickett puts the ball straight through a keyhole about 30 yards out, when accounting for the fact that he is throwing from the far hash. That kind of velocity and placement, especially in the red zone, will stick at the next level.
Pickett showcases that kind of accuracy both in and out of structure. Sometimes his feet lead him astray and he sprays the ball, but by and large, the Pitt product is an accurate thrower, both down-to-down and in high-difficulty situations. With that kind of accuracy, Pickett is a relatively sure thing whenever he arrives at the right target. That puts him in stark contrast to classmate Ridder, who arrives at the right target often but does not have the same degree of accuracy.
That accuracy serves Pickett well when he decides to break the pocket, which he does often. Too often, to be clear, but it’s hard to deny how effective Pickett was out of structure in 2021. Not only does Pickett have the burst to make tacklers miss and enough speed to extend plays to the sideline, but he showcases the vision and quick trigger that allow him to capitalize on defenders getting lost in the chaos of scramble drills.
Pickett has no choice but to bail in this example. The edge rusher comes around the tackle scot-free and could have chased Pickett up the pocket if the quarterback had decided to slide up. Pickett’s initial reaction and quickness to fly out of the pocket is a win as is, but he keeps it going by keeping his eyes up to scan the field rather than taking off. Pickett brings his eyes straight to the dig working from right to left, showing the awareness amidst chaos to still know where each moving piece is, and delivers the receiver a clean strike.
Again, Pickett gets forced out of the pocket, this time by a completely free runner on a blitz. Pickett gets a little herky-jerky when he realizes the defender is running clean, but when paired with his quickness, it sort of works to make him this unpredictable, twitched-up Houdini act out the backdoor of the pocket. More impressive, however, is Pickett’s ability to adjust on the fly here. Once out of the pocket, Pickett sprints to the line of scrimmage to ensure he’s clear of the defender chasing him, as well as threaten the underneath defenders. Pickett does well to recognize the coverage defenders abandoning tight end Lucas Krull (7), allowing him to veer off to his right a bit and find his man for an explosive play. Pairing that kind of escapability and vision is a nifty combo and the main reason teams have looked at Pickett as a first-round player.
Sometimes Pickett will take off on his own, too. He is no threat to gash teams for triple-digit yardage, nor should he be expected to take many designed carries, but he has the right blend of quickness, speed, and brazenness to pick up decent chunks here and there. Pickett will reside in the Zach Wilson, Taylor Heinicke tier of running quarterbacks, which is just enough to make defenses think twice when he clears the tackle box. It’s not the prettiest feather in Pickett’s cap, but it’s there nonetheless.
Where Pickett’s profile starts to become complicated is with all of the finer parts of quarterback play. Processing, movement in the pocket, footwork, etc.—Pickett is not a polished quarterback right now, which is unsettling enough for any prospect, but particularly a four-year starter with acceptable but unspectacular tools.
As far as processing goes, it is not that Pickett is all bad. Four years of experience will guide you to the right place a decent amount of the time. Pickett can identify pressures and replace blitzes fairly well (e.g., the Clemson game). He has his fair share of tough dig throws between hook defenders, ambitious post throws, timely checkdowns, you name it. Also, he does not put the ball in danger all too often, especially relative to his willy-nilly playstyle and ample aggression.
A few times a game, he delivers something sharp like the play above. Pickett sees the two-high shell pre-snap and wants to work the middle of the field. With the crosser working from right to left into the boundary, however, Pickett needs to be wary of the boundary safety turning back to the field and poaching anything coming back his way, especially considering he is only sitting 10 yards deep. The moment Pickett sees the boundary safety turn his back to the middle of the field to play the corner route, he draws his eyes right back to the crosser over the middle and tosses a dart just past the linebacker.
Pickett flashes the ability to get back-side, too. Usually he needs to see it break open before throwing rather than anticipating it, but he shows these moments of excellent conviction and placement. When Pickett lets ’em fly in rhythm, as he does here, it looks as pro-like as anyone else in the class. Moments such as this one give reason to believe Pickett can, at some point, become a reliable and timely decision-maker.
With Pickett, the issue is more about inconsistency. There are few clear and consistent threads to the way he processes the game. Sometimes Pickett’s eyes start on the wrong side of the field, sometimes he is late scanning towards the other end of the concept, and other times he flat-out turns down open throws without any reasonable explanation on film. Simulate the same play call versus the same defense five times in a row and Pickett would somehow, someway, produce five different results, some good and some bad. And when it is bad, hoo-boy, it is bad.
Timing is a problem for Pickett more often than it should be. A veteran should not have to wait and see the receiver coming out of the break to throw the ball. He should be able to anticipate the break, especially on an isolated out-breaker such as this, and have the ball out of his hands before the receiver gets his eyes around. That is especially true when throwing into the short side of the field when there is less grass to work with. Alas, Pickett waits an extra beat or two and allows the underneath defender to get a jump on the ball, as well as to pinch the available grass the receiver has to work with to potentially bring the ball in. Theoretically this is something a quarterback can speed up in the pros, but one would imagine a four-year starter would have enough first-team and in-game reps to be more consistent in this regard.
As mentioned earlier, sometimes it’s unclear why Pickett opens where he does. In this instance, Pickett has a double China-7 concept to the right and an isolated 10-yard in-route to his left. With the boundary safety sitting at 10 yards and no other immediate receiving threat to that side, Pickett should know full well that side of the field is a waste of time and he should instead work the strong side of the concept. Instead, Pickett stares at the covered iso route for an eternity, making him far too late to throw the deep corner reliably, and throws one of the latest and most inaccurate 5-and-in routes imaginable.
In this instance, it is a genuine challenge trying to unpack why Pickett never worked to the dig route from the outside receiver. The pocket is perfectly clean and manageable, which should give him the comfort and time to cycle all the way through his progressions. Pickett just stops once he gets to the No. 3 receiver (innermost) running the crossing route, though. The receiver is not really open when Pickett works to him and only becomes further covered from that point on as he runs out of grass to work with. Pickett stays on him anyway, throws to the covered receiver, and wastes the dig runner moving into a wide-open middle of the field. Pickett has to be more calm and willing to see a passing concept all the way through when he has time to do so.
And there are other moments where Pickett simply passes up an open receiver. He knows to take his eyes there, stares at the wide-open receiver, then just moves onto another option. No clue why. Sometimes he checks down immediately, other times he bails the pocket to make something happen, but all of the time, it’s incredibly frustrating to watch, especially knowing that he can and has made these throws before in some capacity.
The inconsistency is infuriating and, quite frankly, difficult to square. When a player is consistently bad at one thing, it makes that skill easier to hone in on and try to fix, as well as to game-plan around. When a player is all over the place, it’s hard from the outside to decipher why and determine how to fix the issue, or how fixable it even is at that point. Pickett’s processing may become more consistent down the road, but as he is now, it makes it difficult to actually construct the right kind of offense and game plan for him when there are so few consistent factors to stand on.
The final point of contention with Pickett, which has already been hinted at, is that his pocket management is bizarre. While he does show moments of excellent awareness and escapability, Pickett leans towards bailing early. Pickett is not one to often navigate within the pocket and make subtle movements to keep himself clean. Everything he does within the pocket, scarce as it is, is like watching someone play Dance Dance Revolution on the highest difficulty. He usually just leaves the pocket anyway, even when he has time and space to meddle with.
Pickett probably wants to move to his right to follow the crossing route from the tight end. On some level, that is understandable. The line of thinking is easy to follow, at the very least. However, Pickett has seven blockers in front of him and the pocket remains fairly intact while the routes are developing. Pickett should have no issue remaining in the pocket and then either throwing the crosser from there or progressing back to the dig route behind it. Instead, Pickett just ends up running himself out of the play entirely and throwing the ball away. The NFL will require Pickett to have better pocket integrity than that when things are clean, let alone when they are condensed and chaotic.
Pickett is just not a polished product at this point. He is not helpless either, to be fair, but he still needs a fair amount of seasoning to go before he can be a consistent, effective NFL starting quarterback. The problem is that four years of starting experience—three of them in the same offensive system—have brought him to this incomplete status. One would imagine that a player with that much experience would be a little more put together.
If an NFL team is going to bet on an old and experienced prospect, the player ought to be fairly complete and ready to go. And if a team is going to bet on a still-developing prospect, the player ought to have better than B-minus tools (i.e., Malik Willis). Pickett has some things to work with, but he goes 0-for-2 by that criteria and it makes his profile tough to stomach with a premium pick, especially in the first round.
Pickett’s profile has more elements of a Day 3 pick than a Day 1 selection. It feels like a near-certainty that Pickett will land in the first round anyway, perhaps even the top 10, but it’s hard to argue that has to do with anything other than the quality of the quarterback class at large. That is not to say Pickett has no chance of living up to the billing, but he is not the caliber of prospect that typically goes in this range, and his developmental journey in the pros should be viewed with caution through that lens.