Column | Pickett needs healthy finish to maintain professional prospects

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Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett threw four interceptions in Pitt’s 52-17 loss to Clemson on Saturday

By Tyler Mathes, Senior Staff Writer

Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett has the chance to become the eighth Pitt quarterback drafted since the first Super Bowl in 1967.

Pickett has four (five if the Panthers play a bowl game) games left, barring limitations from his ankle injury, to prove he deserves to play at the next level. It’s unlikely he’ll step onto any team he goes to and be a day-one starter, but he still has time to set himself apart from plenty of second-string quarterbacks, giving him the potential to get on a roster and eventually work his way up to a first string role.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have selected five of the 10 quarterbacks ever drafted out of Pitt, and Pickett could be the next in line. Before we get to that, let’s look at how the senior captain measures both statistically, and through the “eye test.”
Pickett is on pace to throw for 2,778 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions if he plays the remainder of the schedule and Pitt plays in a bowl game this season. The Minnesota Vikings selected former Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley with the 244th pick in last year’s NFL draft, making him the last quarterback to come off the board. Stanley threw for 2,951 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions in his final season as a Hawkeye. While these numbers look promising for Pickett’s draft hopes, this year’s quarterback class is deeper than the one Stanley contended with.

Clemson junior Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State junior Justin Fields and North Dakota State redshirt sophomore Trey Lance will likely be the first three quarterbacks off the board. Florida redshirt senior Kyle Trask and BYU junior Zach Wilson are the next most likely to be selected.

After them, the field is open, and Pickett will compete with the likes of Texas A&M senior Kellen Mond and Iowa State junior quarterback Brock Purdy for a late round pick. 

The NFL is a fickle league, though, and every team could be willing to take a chance on a backup quarterback, or only five teams could be willing to draft a long-term replacement for their current starter. 

Pickett has thrown for more yards per game (277.8) than both Mond (248.8) and Purdy (218.8) in 2020. The senior Panther quarterback is on pace to come close to another 3,000-yard season through the air, if he doesn’t break the mark for the second year in a row.

Pickett’s biggest statistical shortcoming? Touchdowns.

He’s thrown 34 touchdowns through his 35 games at Pitt, while Purdy threw 27 and Mond threw 20 last season alone. Now, if Pickett only had 10 or 12 interceptions in his career, the low touchdown numbers wouldn’t be as large a concern. The problem here is that last season he had nine interceptions to go along with his 13 touchdowns. Purdy threw the same number of interceptions, while more than doubling Pickett’s scoring output through the air.

NFL teams are looking for quarterbacks who can move the ball downfield and punch it in at the end of drives. Throughout the final four or five games of the season, Pickett will have to capitalize on scoring opportunities at a high rate to show scouts he deserves a spot on a team.

I had my doubts when Pickett took over the starting role for his first full season two years ago. While he isn’t Lawrence in terms of his ability as a pure passer, and he doesn’t have the speed or agility of Miami’s D’Eriq King, Pickett lies somewhere in no-man’s land. 

He can be sneakily mobile because his first instinct is not to tuck and run, but if he needs to get out of the pocket, he will. He won’t blow you away with speed, but Pickett is a tough, determined runner. At six-foot-two, 220 pounds, he isn’t an easy guy to bring down either. There’s a reason he has five rushing touchdowns on the season, and it isn’t because he boasts spectacular speed or agility like Baltimore Ravens quarterback and reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson.

Pickett can make most of the necessary throws, and when he does get outside of the pocket, he’s a capable passer on the run. He can sometimes struggle with timing routes, but with a good coach and mentor that can be fixed.

He’s got all the natural ability needed to play at the next level, although he’ll be more of a project than some of his counterparts. Pickett can turn himself into a future starter, should he land in the right place.

I think his success at the next level will come down to how much time he’s given to learn. He won’t be a starter in his first, second or maybe even third year, but he can use that time to grow as a player and prepare himself for when he is thrust into a starting role.

There are more NFL-ready quarterbacks than Pickett at the top end of the draft. Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger and Alabama quarterback Mac Jones should be next off the board after the top five quarterbacks are taken, in my opinion. The rest of the field is wide open, and I truly don’t see any reasons why teams wouldn’t give Pickett heavy consideration alongside quarterbacks like Mond and Purdy, given a strong ending to his senior season.

The NCAA is giving all fall athletes the opportunity to return to school next year for one extra season of eligibility, regardless of redshirt status. So, if Pickett wanted to come back and give himself more time to prepare for the NFL, he could.

It will all come down to how these final four — potentially five, games go. If Pickett stays on his current trajectory, there’s no reason for him to return to school next year, as I think he’ll be drafted to be a second-string quarterback somewhere. But if his ankle injury continues to keep him out of games, or if it nags him to the point where it diminishes his production, we could be looking at another year of Pickett in Pittsburgh.

Pitt hasn’t had much success sending quarterbacks to the NFL, with just Hall of Famer and former Miami Dolphins first round pick Dan Marino starting at least 20 games in his career. Former New England Patriots second round pick (1978) Matt Cavanaugh enjoyed a 13-year career in the NFL where he started only 19 games, and is the only Pitt quarterback other than Marino drafted before the fourth round.

Headed into the home stretch, Pickett is a fifth-round pick at best in this year’s quarterback class. Unfortunately for him, the past two drafts have been filled with great talent at the position, and there aren’t that many teams out there that truly need quarterbacks — with the exception of the few that will end up with Lawrence, Fields and Lance. 

Pickett could be in for a move up the boards, but it’s rare to see backup quarterbacks taken before the fourth round anyway.

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