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George Pickens and the NFL’s Wide Receiver Factory

The Steelers always find success with mid-round wideouts, so it’s no surprise that Pickens is getting plenty of attention this preseason

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It looks different when George Pickens catches a football. Other receivers do it the way you expect: they track the flight path, jockey for position, spring into the air, grab the ball, and secure it through contact. Pickens does all of that, yes. But there are no seams between the pieces. There are no fleeting pauses of consideration, nor even the robotic consistency of a well-trained professional. The ball is in the air, and then so is Pickens, floating for far longer than a human should float, just waiting for the ball to meet him. Then he snatches it.

It sounds different when George Pickens catches a football. For other receivers, leather meets glove with a smack, an appropriate and expected sound on a noisy football field. Particularly difficult balls are cradled, corralled, juggled, drawn into the body. With Pickens, each catch is soft and immediate. It does not matter if the throw is below Pickens’s knees or above his head, against his momentum or far out in front of him: The ball freezes in place like it has actually been caught by surprise.

Pickens is a natural, and everyone at training camp for the Pittsburgh Steelers knows it. I’ve been here for two hours, and as I watch Pickens and the rest of the Steelers’ receiving corps work through a drill for catching downfield passes with the appropriate technique, I know it, too. I can see the difference and hear the difference. When veteran Steven Sims elevates for a one-handed, over-the-shoulder grab, Steelers wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson chastises him: “Catch with two hands! Catch with two hands!” When Pickens thoughtlessly, almost carelessly makes a one-handed catch of greater difficulty on the very next throw, Jackson says nothing. Jackson knows it, too.

Earlier that day, I asked Jackson about the rave reviews Pickens has received in camp. Jackson gave a boilerplate answer, as he should have—you don’t want to let a rookie get too big for his boots before he takes a real NFL snap. He talked about seeing at Georgia what he’s seen from Pickens in camp—the body control, the intensity in practice, the love for football—and insisted that he wasn’t too surprised by anything so far. But at the end, he admits what we’re all thinking: “Some of this stuff, I’m like ‘Oh, shoot. This kid’s got a chance to be a good player.’”

The Steelers cannot keep getting away with this. It’s hard to remember the last time this team drafted a receiver who didn’t end up being a good player. Above Pickens on Pittsburgh’s depth chart are 2020 second-round pick Chase Claypool and 2019 third-round pick Diontae Johnson, both of whom have exceeded expectations in their young careers. They learned the craft under receivers like James Washington (a 2018 second-round pick, and perhaps the only recent miss for the team) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (a 2017 second-round pick). All of these middle-round receiver picks—six in the past six drafts—were made under longtime general manager Kevin Colbert, who retired in May after 22 years in the Steelers’ organization and 12 years as the team’s general manager. In his first draft as general manager in 2010, he drafted Emmanuel Sanders in the third round and Antonio Brown in the sixth; in his final draft, he took Pickens in the second.

Pickens was available in the second round for a myriad of reasons. He was coming off of a torn ACL, suffered during the spring of 2021, and caught only five passes in four games of his final college season before declaring for the draft. Pickens also came with maturity concerns. He was suspended once at Georgia—as a freshman for fighting a Georgia Tech cornerback—and as a sophomore he was once penalized for squirting a water bottle at an opposing quarterback on the sideline. Anonymous sources during draft season should always be read with scrutiny, but they still can give us insight into Pickens’s fall. From Bruce Feldman’s NFL draft confidential, Pickens was labeled the most “boom-or-bust” receiver by an NFL scout, who said “he can’t get out of his own way. He’s been enabled his whole life.” An NFL wide receivers coach said, “He’s a top-6 talent-wise … But I wouldn’t touch him.” Another NFL wide receivers coach: “He’s got a lot of growing up to do. If he goes to the right place with a room full of veterans that help him go the right way, I think he’ll have a chance.”

The Steelers believe that Pittsburgh is that right place, and understandably so. The defining receiver of the last decade of Steelers football was Antonio Brown, who had a five-year stretch of unparalleled play until he forced his way off the team with his erratic behavior, which eventually grew to include a lawsuit for sexual assault, a felony burglary with battery charge that he plead no contest to, and threatening to punch a GM. Much of the credit for managing Brown before his larger wrongdoings belongs to head coach Mike Tomlin, who called Brown “real naive when he got [to Pittsburgh]” on The Pivot this past summer. Tomlin is held in high regard around the league for his relationships with his players and the firm, fair hand with which he manages his team. With a coach like Tomlin in the building, picking a player with maturity concerns like Pickens becomes a safer proposition. As Colbert said on Pittsburgh radio following the draft, “George is a young, competitive guy that lets his emotions sometimes get carried away. But that’s not a bad thing as long as you can control it.” Besides casually frog-kicking his college teammate off of him during a tackle in the preseason, Pickens’s emotions have largely been kept in check.

The competitiveness, meanwhile, has shone through. In one practice earlier this month, the Steelers ran an extended one-on-one period for receivers against defensive backs in the red zone. When it came time for best against best, star free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick took to his old college position, playing cornerback against Pickens, Johnson, and Claypool. Pickens’s first rep against Fitzpatrick was a doozy—an out-and-up touchdown in the back corner of the end zone.

After Fitzpatrick lined up against each of the three starting wideouts, Tomlin asked him who he wanted for his next rep. Fitzpatrick asked for Pickens, and this time, covered him well. Then they ran it back again. And they ran it back again. And they ran it back again. Pickens ran five reps in that one-on-one period, more than any other receiver—each came against Fitzpatrick. By the final rep, Pickens had caught two balls, and Fitzpatrick had broken up two passes. This was the decider.

“It was a great catch,” Fitzpatrick told me the next day, smiling and shaking his head. “I went for the ball, but I should have went through his hands. But he stuck it in there.”

That is a grown-man play against the best cover man the Steelers had to offer—truly, one of the best cover men the league has to offer. Fitzpatrick knows how important those reps are to the young pass catcher. “I think it’s good for George to go out there and realize that he can compete with high-level guys. Just getting him ready in season for when that does happen.” As Tomlin said: “The exposure was not for Minkah. It’s for George.”

That’s about as strong of a compliment as a rookie will get from Tomlin in the month of August—lining him up against a star defender and expecting him to hold his own. “There’s a difference between talent and skill,” were Tomlin’s words on Pickens earlier this month, when his highlights became too regular to ignore. “And that’s what we’re trying to educate him and others regarding. God gives them the talent; we develop the skills in settings like this relative to the positions that they play.”

Hidden between the highlight-reel plays, the development is there. Jackson had no notes for Pickens on his out-and-up touchdown or contested catch over the middle, but took Pickens to the woodshed for turning upfield with the wrong shoulder on a 1-yard route against Fitzpatrick earlier in the matchup—you won’t find any clips of that on Twitter. Pickens highlighted lining up with the correct split and not taking too much time at the top of his routes—common, correctable mistakes for young receivers—as the things Jackson has helped him improve during his time in a Steelers jersey. “A lot of coaches in the league wouldn’t [push you to be great]” Pickens said. “They’re just probably just like ‘You make crazy plays!’ and they’re cool with that.”

Pickens does make impressive plays, and the Steelers are cool with that. But there isn’t a team in the league that has reliably, consistently gotten more out of young receivers than the Steelers. If there’s a formula, they have it. Pickens has supplanted Claypool as the starting outside receiver opposite Johnson—Claypool took 80 percent of his snaps last season along the outside, but this preseason, has taken 14 snaps in the slot to only two outside reps. He’s scoring back-pylon touchdowns on one play and springing runs with downfield blocking on the next. Pickens headlined the 2022 NFL preseason, and the regular season fast approaches. Then, that which the Steelers already know and are desperately trying to keep quiet will become evident to everyone league-wide: It just looks a little different when George Pickens plays football.