Kenny Pickett and the Steelers could be the AFC North’s surprise team

The Pittsburgh Steelers are possibly the best team in the AFC North.

After a summer of listening to some HR executives I trust rave about the influx of talent into Pittsburgh, consider me a part of the train. The Steelers are back and will be a problem in their division – perhaps the best division in football – and beyond. The defense is elite, a point that needs no further elaboration. (Perennial Defensive MVP candidate TJ Watt is in excellent health, that run is 29-10-1 for the last three years if he dons a uniform and rookie Nick Herbig looks like their next impact-pass-rushing discovery.) Yet more notable is that the offensive continued He has made great strides in the last season and appears primed for another breakthrough.

Factor in the cohesion and consistency between the offensive and defensive systems and the coaching staff, what looks like another home run from a draft class, and Coach Mike Tomlin’s stellar track record — he’s never lost in his 16 years at the helm, by the way You kind of hadn’t heard it before – and that sounds like the recipe for an overlooked team beating forecasts. (Pittsburgh is still about 5-1 on most sports betting to win the division, and the Steelers’ overall win count is 8½ or 9, a number they reached in 2022 despite being beaten by Hall of Famer quarterback Ben Roethlisberger changed.)

“That’s my sleeper in the AFC,” said a longtime NFL human resources manager who has explored the AFC North extensively this preseason. (He spoke on condition of anonymity as he is not allowed to speak freely about his scouting reports.) “I love what they do. You’re building a strong soccer team, man. They had another great off-season. They reworked the offensive line and I think that’s the best defense in the AFC North.

“They found five other pickers in the draft and I spoke to a few of them [scouts] And they really like this lineman they got from Maryland [seventh-round guard Spencer Anderson], and I don’t even count that boy because I didn’t see him that often. Watch out for the Steelers. They will make noise.”

Of course, it all starts with the quarterback.

Kenny Pickett made significant progress last season after a bye in Week 9 and while his rookie season totals won’t impress, the improvements were clearly evident in the film. He struggled for position on the depth chart throughout spring and summer, only taking on the role of starter in week 5 and experiencing all the expected hiccups. He also proved to be a quick learner and had some clutch gene as his decision making skills improved, he excelled at navigating and scaling the bag and found it easy to rally his team from behind. Pickett threw a pick on an alarming 4.8 percent of his passes before the bye, but only 0.4 percent after. (The Steelers were 6-1 in games he started and finished by the bye, with three wins away).

He started plowing the ball down more (his yards/attempts increased by more than a yard) and showed tremendous improvement in the crucial fourth quarter, skyrocketing his 38.7 passing rating in the last quarter before the bye 94.5 from Week 10. His chemistry with rising star receiver George Pickens was evident this summer, after a staccato in 2022. Third-round pick Darnell Washington (a huge six-foot-three target) was one of the stars at training camp, and I’m told he also played a notable role on that offensive line, while speedster Calvin Austin III was a revelation, having spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve. (No franchise has found greater wide receiver value in the draft than the Steelers in the last 20 years). Add in the holdups Pat Freiermuth and Diontae Johnson and it’s an interesting and diverse group of pass catchers for Pickett.

“He’s going to be a franchise quarterback,” the executive said. “You already know I liked what I saw a year ago and he’s building on that.”

A year ago, the Steelers’ coaches and front office folks were clearly wait-and-see to Pickett (the only passer picked in the first round in 2022), making no announcements and giving journeyman Mitch Trubisky the first dibs as starter . Outwardly, expectations are still dampened and offensive coordinator Matt Canada remains a controversial figure, with Tomlin’s loyalty to him sometimes irking the fanbase, but there’s ample reason to believe Pickett will shine. Tomlin is closely involved in the process.

“During team development, he and I would meet every morning at the beginning of the day and talk about different things,” Tomlin said of Pickett during a recent media session. “Leadership. Things that come with being him. I want to be a part of his growth and development and not just sit by and hope it happens the way we need and want it to happen. So we’re building it on purpose.”

Pittsburgh’s running game also grew in the second half of the season, which greatly benefited the rookie’s development. Najee Harris, a first-round pick in 2021, recovered (his foot problems were worse than initially thought) and his average per carry rose from 3.3 before the bye to 4.1 after. Rookie Jaylen Warren had more carries in the last four weeks (35) than in the first eight weeks (29), and Finally, holes began to form in the front. Harris’ yards from contact almost doubled after the bye, from .69 to 1.33.

He might be the most important raven not named Lamar Jackson

Expect even better results with upgrades in the offensive line. Free-agent left-back Isaac Seumalo received immediate rave reviews, and top pick Broderick Jones, who finished at No. 14, has the makings of a franchise left-hander (“You’ve got the best lineman in the draft,” said a senior NFC Managers in similar media caveats. “They’ve fixed the left side of their line.”) The Steelers can finally thrash you back in the trenches, and young general manager Omar Khan, who took the place of the legendary Kevin Colbert after the 2022 draft , after serving as his deputy for years, gets praise from his peers.

“He knows how to build a team and position the quarterback to be successful,” said an NFC general manager. To that end, Canada should be able to attack opposing defenses in a variety of ways, going overly physical with 12 people (two tight ends) or throwing out of defense. He has plenty of options with 11 players (three wide receivers) and should be able to smash defenses with multiple running backs on the field and/or a full-back.

If the crime is unsuccessful, Canada will most likely pay for it. And maybe he’s the weak link. But some also see merit in his past work and another reason to believe Pittsburgh could win its first playoff game since the 2016 postseason.

“This year I think [Canada] “There’s a real coming-out party with the quarterback,” said the longtime hiring manager. “I could have imagined that last year. This offense will be a problem.” Kenny Pickett and the Steelers could be the AFC North’s surprise team

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