It hasn’t been the rookie season anyone hoped for the Steelers top pick, and it appears to be eerily similar to another quarterback in the league.
The Steelers decided to move forward with Kenny Pickett as their next franchise quarterback when they selected him in the first round of the NFL draft last spring. Pickett was your prototypical high-floor, low-ceiling type of prospect at quarterback. He was seen as the most pro-ready of the quarterbacks even if his ceiling wasn’t as high as others.
There are inherent pros and cons with a player like this. While getting a quarterback that can play early is nice, Pickett will likely never be the difference maker at the position like we see in Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen. Safe quarterbacks can win games and even the Super Bowl, but more often than not they get lumped into long periods of mediocre stretches unless the team around them is elite.
Pickett still has plenty of time to prove those notions wrong, but his rookie season hasn’t aided in helping that issue. He has been bad, and while fans are quick to blame anyone but Pickett, it isn’t a surprise to see a rookie struggle. That doesn’t mean he is a bust or a bad player, it just means he has growing pains. Granted, even I had hoped his growing pains wouldn’t have been this bad, but I’m still not ready to throw the towel in just yet.
That said, I found a very interesting comparison for Pickett that doesn’t inspire a lot of hope. While people throw out the aforementioned Allen as a comparison of rookies that struggled, Allen was seen as a raw project with all of the tools to succeed. It all came together for him, which has since made him elite. Instead, this current starter seems like a much fairer comparison.
The Texans are in a similar boat
During the 2021 draft, the Texans were in a tough spot. DeShaun Watson was facing a slew of legal trouble and despite being a bad team, Houston was limited to five draft picks. The first of those picks, which came atop of the third round, was used on Stanford quarterback Davis Mills. While Tyrod Taylor was initially the starter, the Texans turned to Mills for 13 total games (11 starts), and the results were mediocre.
While Mills was taken in the third round, he was also featured in a deep quarterback class which pushed his value down. He was seen as a very safe, low-ceiling player given his play at Stanford. At best, you were getting a competent game manager that could succeed if the right team was around him.
Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? While Pickett went in the first round, he was the only quarterback in his class to do so. One has to wonder just where he would have gone had he been in the top-heavier 2021 class. Just as well, would Mills have been a first-round pick had he been in 2022’s draft class?
The similarities start in college
Pickett was the more established starter of the two in school, playing over five total seasons and being the primary starter in four of them. Mills only played three years and starter two of those seasons. Before Pickett’s final season, the similarities between the two were obvious.
Neither were top players at the position in their respective conference, but they were safe options that could lead the offense when called upon. Before his final season, Pickett threw 38 touchdowns compared to 25 picks over his three-year span while Mills had a ratio of 18 scores to 8 interceptions (Mills started two seasons to Pickett’s three).
The big difference came in Pickett’s final season, where he broke out. That said, he had five years in the same system and benefited from having Jordan Addison as his top wideout. That isn’t to say Pickett didn’t get better; he did, but his sudden leap into stardom wasn’t solely on him.
In terms of measurements, the two are almost identical. Both are similar heights and weights, and while Mills has the bigger hands, Pickett is the more athletic of the two. This has been evident so far in their NFL careers, as Pickett has been a threat on the ground while Mills is more of a pocket passer.
The Steelers have seen a similar start from Pickett
Mills began his NFL career in week two, coming in halfway through the game and starting for the majority of the rest of the season. This compares nicely to Pickett, who seems to be on a similar trajectory. I compared the two in the tweet below.
Those numbers are far closer than I thought they would be. Mills scored five times vs seven interceptions. Pickett has been far worse as a passer (only two touchdowns through the air to eight interceptions), but he has chipped in three rushing touchdowns as well. Mills has 100 fewer passing yards, but Pickett also has 25 more passing attempts to his name.
Mills did improve over the final stretch of games. He only had three more interceptions on the year and became more consistent in throwing every week. If Pickett is on this current trajectory, it seems fair to assume that he should end up looking better as the rest of the season goes on.
What does this mean for the Steelers going forward?
If Pickett and Mills end up being similar players, that isn’t a good thing for the Steelers. Mills was given another season to prove himself, and he hasn’t done well. His touchdown to interception numbers are worse than how it was as a rookie and his overall completion percentage is down. As well, the Texans have limped to an abysmal 1-7-1 record under Mills.
For those claiming that most of the issues with Pickett stem from the offensive line or Matt Canada, the Texans had similar arguments. Both their line and ours are similar according to PFF and the Texans brought on a new offensive coordinator this season. Despite all of that, Mills has still been very mediocre as a quarterback.
He has been so bad that most expect the Texans to be targeting a quarterback atop this draft class to replace him. He hasn’t been a trainwreck like some quarterbacks have been in recent years, but he hasn’t done enough to make him a realistic franchise guy for Houston.
I do think Pickett is a better overall athlete than Mills, which is a plus. I also think he is slightly more aggressive with throws, another trait I want in my quarterback. That said, the early comparisons are too similar for my liking.
This doesn’t mean the Steelers have to cut bait with Pickett right away, but if this trajectory plays out the team needs to be ready to move on. I don’t want a more athletic Mills running my team for the foreseeable future. If Pickett breaks this trend, then this is an entirely different conversation. All of that said, there are a lot of similarities between the two players right now, and that isn’t a good thing for the Steelers.