PITTSBURGH (AP) George Pickens could have taken his time recovering from a torn ACL in his right knee suffered last March. Could have used all of 2021 to recover. Could have taken a redshirt in Georgia and pointed to the 2023 NFL Draft.
It would have been safe, of course. The wide receiver, however, didn’t believe it was necessary. Not with the Bulldogs chasing a national title. And not with a chance to head to the pros with so many of his teammates.
Less than nine months after being injured, Pickens made an impact on Georgia’s run in the college football playoffs. Just over a year after a bad career-threatening stage, Pickens is the latest member of a youth movement on a Pittsburgh Steelers offense that will try to make up in fresh legs for what he may be lacking in experience. .
The Steelers grabbed the 6-foot-3 Pickens in the second round of the draft on Friday night, won over by his playability and the tenacity with which he recovered from chipping his knee. Pickens caught just five passes for 107 yards in 2021, including one for 52 yards in the blowout victory over Alabama in the national championship.
Pittsburgh then added Texas A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal in the third round, giving the Steelers depth at an injury-decimated position last fall.
The Steelers knew about Pickens before he was injured on day four of Georgia’s spring drills. What they saw upon his return did little to change their minds about his potential.
“He didn’t play a huge role, but he came back and played late, had some big plays and fought to come back and play,” Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “To me, that’s a great show of his character right there. He could have easily said, ‘Hey, I’m going to get my health back and wait.’
Instead, Pickens cushioned the blow of losing JuJu Smith-Schuster to Kansas City in free agency. Pickens joins a group that includes Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and tight end Pat Freiermuth. Oh, and rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, caught with the 20th pick in the first round.
“I was saying everything happens for a reason, so it’s also a blessing for Kenny to go last night and for me to go today,” Pickens said.
Pickens caught 85 passes for 1,240 yards in his first two seasons with the Bulldogs in 2019 and 2020 and likely would have been ranked in the first round had it not been for his injury. He ran a 4.47 40-yard sprint and the Steelers practically sprinted to the podium to get him back.
“We had him as a very tall guy coming out before his injury and we kept him there,” Canada said. “He showed us on his pro day that he was still that guy.”
The selection continues a generational shift on offense that began in earnest last April when the Steelers grabbed running back Najee Harris in the first round and Freiermuth in the second.
“I’m going to be excited about the youngsters,” Canada said. “They are ready to work and they have been here before. I think we have a really talented group.
Pickens gives whoever will be the starting quarterback in Week 1 – be it Pickett, Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph – another big goal to join the 6-4 Claypool and 6-5 Freiermuth.
Canada believes it can have Claypool or Pickens lined up in the slot despite their size and the fact that Pittsburgh’s top three receivers can get downfield – Pickens ran the 40-yard sprint in a respectable 4.47 seconds – should only make the Steelers even harder to defend.
“The more guns you have, the better,” Canada said. “The more competition you have in any room, the better.”
The same can be said for the defensive line, which is fuming after finishing dead last in the NFL against the run in 2021. The loss of veteran defensive tackle Tyson Alualu in Week 2 and the absence of Stephon Tuitt for the entire season turned a longtime strength into a glaring weakness despite All-Pro Cam Heyward’s stellar play.
Alualu is expected to return in the fall, although he turns 35 next month as Tuitt’s status remains unclear.
The 6-foot-4, 283-pound Leal could play inside or defense in Pittsburgh. He had 8 1/2 sacks last season for the Aggies amid a career-high 58 tackles.
Now he finds himself with the chance to line up alongside Heyward, with reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year TJ Watt behind him.
“TJ is the craziest pass thrower,” Leal said. “I look forward to working with him. I can’t wait to combine our talents and get after the QB.
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://apnews.com/hub/pro-32 and https://twitter.com/AP-NFL
Suggest a fix