The Pittsburgh Steelers have reason to be optimistic about the future of their skill players. With a young quarterback to pair with a rising tight end and up-and-coming wide receiver, this offense could take a big step soon.
Recently, ESPN staff writer Bill Barnwell took a stab at ranking all 32 teams' wide receivers, running backs, and tight end groups for the upcoming 2023 season. Using data and analytics to support his conclusion, Barnell had the Steelers ranked 13th.
Considering the youth of Pittsburgh's skill players and the fact that they have a young quarterback getting them the ball, we shouldn't be surprised to see Pittsburgh just above the middle of the pack here. However, Barnell wasn't shy about giving props to George Pickens and what he was able to accomplish as a rookie. Here's what he had to say.
"The significant outlier was George Pickens, whose expected catch rate was 51.4%. He responded by catching 61.9% of his passes. The list of players who have run 500 routes and posted a catch rate 10 percentage points better than expected in the Next Gen Stats era isn't long: It's Doug Baldwin, Stefon Diggs, Pierre Garcon, DeAndre Hopkins, Tyler Lockett and Michael Thomas, who did it three times. Baldwin and Lockett played with prime Russell Wilson, who had model-breaking accuracy on deep throws. Thomas was with Drew Brees, who set NFL accuracy records. Pickens was playing with a rookie."- Bill Barnwell, via ESPN
Barnell was clearly impressed with the quality company that Pickens joined during this rookie season. Very few players have caught over 10 percent more than what was expected of them, per Next Gen Stats, but Pickens was one of them. He joins players like DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs in this department.
Steelers fans should be optimistic about their skill players
George Pickens certainly offers encouragement for the future after a rookie year where he continually had us on our feet. Obviously, there's still plenty of work to do as a route runner when it comes to eating up yards after the catch. If he can add those elements to his game, look out!
Even if Pickens doesn't emerge as a true WR1 in 2023, there are still plenty of other reasons to be optimistic about Pittsburgh's skill players this season. Pat Freiermuth is already earning a reputation as a borderline top-five tight end in the NFL, and he could take the next step with a healthy season in 2023.
Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine players like Diontae Johnson or Najee Harris performing much worse than they did in 2023. Having an improved offensive line and Kenny Pickett in his second season should help. It's also reasonable to think that players like Jaylen Warren, Darnell Washington, Calvin Austin, and Connor Heyward could be efficient in their roles with the team this season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers may only be 13th on ESPN's 2023 wide receiver, running back, and tight end rankings, but there are as many reasons to expect them to improve throughout the year as any group of skill players in the league. I'm willing to bet that by next offseason, they take a big leap forward on this list.