Kenny Pickett is different. He’s better. You can feel it, and you can see it.
One practice and about seven minutes with the Steelers’ second-year quarterback Tuesday backed up expectations. Pickett is ready to make a nice step — or perhaps a leap — forward in 2023.
“I understand what our system is now and I can work on all the things that I know that we want to do this season,” he said following Day 1 of OTAs. “So I just have an idea of what that is, and getting a head start on it was pretty huge. I felt comfortable with the stuff that we were doing today.”
A year ago, that wasn’t the case for Pickett. At all.
He entered the 2022 OTAs as the team’s third quarterback, behind Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph. By the end of training camp, he had passed up Rudolph. By halftime of the Steelers’ fourth game, he upended Trubisky.
Now he seems ready to pass many of the rest of the league’s quarterbacks. And, after getting a full offseason as the certified starter, Pickett is far more comfortable, and capable.
"It's a different team, honestly,” he said. “Not just player wise, but in terms of plays and how much we have in already. It's a credit to the coaching staff for being here, working hard and guys showing up when they don’t have to be here.
“(We’ve) put five installs or six (offensive) installs in. We were only really at one or two at this time last year.”
Complementing teammates. Praising coaches. Sounding like a leader.
And that’s where Pickett’s growth will develop first. Before the accuracy, the decision making, the in-game adjustments, Pickett will continue to do what he started last year — lead, and deliver in the clutch.
“The big time moments, the moment the games are on the line, and you got to go out there and operate,” Pickett said. “I think we did that towards the end of the season and it was good to build on and finish the way we did. So I think that having that tape to look back at, watch and kind of grow from, was crucial.”
Pickett’s on field presence Tuesday showed his leadership. He is poised to be a more vocal, commanding presence in and out of the huddle. He showed that during offensive work Tuesday, when he took George Pickens aside to discuss the logistics of the drill.
He has also worked to improve on his biggest question mark coming out of last season — his durability.
The former Pitt quarterback has gained about 13 pounds since the end of last season, and now weighs around 226 pounds. After suffering a pair of concussions last year, Pickett feels he’s ready for the grind and grueling hits of an NFL season.
“Coming from college, it's only a 12-game season,” he said. “Here it's 17, plus the three preseason (games), and you want to make a long run into February. So it's a long season. You're taking a lot of shots, so I just want to have some more protection.”
The extra size will benefit Pickett, provided he can continue to use his mobility as he did last year, which didn’t appear to be lacking, in any way, Tuesday.
Pickett still needs to limit the poor decisions, which he was generally able to do in the back half of the year. After passing for two touchdowns and eight interceptions to begin the year, he finished with five scores and one pick in his last seven games.
He’s also got to deliver more throughout games like he did in some late-game situations, like Pittsburgh’s dramatic wins over Vegas and Baltimore late in the year.
That happening isn’t solely on him, however. The Steelers, and offensive coordinator Matt Canada, need to allow him to flow earlier and more often, when necessary.
Whether that happens or not, and given the additions made to the team’s offense this offseason, the year under his belt and the size he’s added, Pickett himself feels that the time for excuse making is long gone.
“We’ve got the guys,” he said. “We’ve got to go execute. That's how football is, it's always like that. At some point, it’s players, not plays. We got to step up and make plays.”
He’s saying the right things. And he’ll deliver on them.