How the Kenny Pickett era fizzled, and where the Steelers go from here at QB

Kenny Pickett was all smiles outside the visitors’ locker room at Lumen Field on Dec. 31st in Seattle, as he posed for a photo with hockey great Wayne Gretzky.

It was some game, really. The Steelers had just beaten the Seahawks, 30-23. Pittsburgh ran its winning streak to two games to keep its faint postseason hopes alive. But as Najee Harris went Beast Mode with Marshawn Lynch in attendance, Pickett was a mere spectator that day.

Though Pickett was 27 days removed from a TightRope procedure — which typically comes with a four-week recovery window — on his injured ankle, coach Mike Tomlin had decided to ride the hot hand by starting Mason Rudolph for a second consecutive week. Pickett watched from the sideline in street clothes. Reports emerged that Pickett had refused to dress as the backup, which he later denied. (Tomlin would continue to start Rudolph in the season finale and later in the first round of the playoffs against the Bills.)

As it turned out, that quiet benching for the New Year’s Eve game became the first indication that the Steelers were charting a new path at quarterback.

On Friday, shortly after introducing Russell Wilson as the newest Steeler, the team profoundly shook up its quarterback room and eliminated any speculation about who would start Week 1. In a surprise move, general manager Omar Khan dealt Pickett to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a modest return. The Steelers gave up a fourth-round pick (No. 120) and Pickett in exchange for a third-round pick (No. 98) and a pair of 2025 seventh-round picks. It illustrated how much Pickett’s stock had fallen: from the 20th pick in 2022 to a mid-round pick swap in 2024.



Steelers trade Kenny Pickett to Eagles: Source

When Pickett joined the Steelers, he came with a pre-packaged fan base that watched him rewrite the record books at Pitt. The stage was set for a feel-good story, as the QB would have a shot to play in the same stadium he starred in during college.

It never happened. Instead, Pickett’s time with the Steelers can be seen only as a massive disappointment.

After an underwhelming rookie season, the hope was Pickett could take a sizable leap in Year 2 to solidify himself as the future franchise QB. In reality, it was hard to find any stat that suggested Pickett took a meaningful step forward in 2023. Overall, he finished his Steelers’ tenure 14-10 as a starter, completing 62.6 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, 4,474 passing yards and a passer rating of 78.8.

There were times when Pittsburgh debated whether offensive coordinator Matt Canada was the main culprit for the putrid offense that consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in almost every meaningful category or whether Pickett was to blame. As it turns out, the answer might have been both. The fact that Rudolph, who started the season as a third-string afterthought, put up 30 points in back-to-back games after Pickett failed to do so in any of his 2023 starts was another indictment of Pickett.

Entering this pivotal offseason, the Steelers had two choices: Given the dysfunction on the offense and the lack of creativity from Canada, they could have given Pickett one more season to prove he wasn’t the problem and that he could succeed in what’s expected to be a run-heavy Arthur Smith offense. Or they could look elsewhere for their answer.

Publicity, the Steelers appeared to be choosing that first path. In his season-ending news conference, Tomlin said it would be a “huuuuuuge” year for Pickett. The coach said he expected Pickett to reclaim his status as QB1 but promised “competition.” At the NFL Scouting Combine two weeks ago, Khan said he had “full faith” in Pickett.

Well, signing a nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion like Wilson — after Steelers veterans Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick openly recruited the QB — is not adding competition. It’s replacing Pickett. While there might have been some type of sham “competition,” the writing was on the wall that Pickett’s tenure was coming to an end, one way or another. Pickett obviously knew what was coming, which caused the divorce to happen sooner than later.

Now it leaves the Steelers with one big question: Where do they go from here?

Even though Wilson comes on an incredibly team-friendly, $1.21 million deal, he’s also set to turn 36 in November and is on a one-year contract. In some ways, it’s a stopgap solution for a team that has needed a long-term answer since Ben Roethlisberger retired — or maybe even before that, when Roethlisberger injured his elbow in 2019.

As it stands, Wilson is currently the lone quarterback on the depth chart. In the short term, the Steelers will need to round out their QB room with at least two new passers. Ryan Tannehill’s connection to Smith makes him a possible target as QB2. While he, like Wilson, is 35, Tannehill should be able to seamlessly pick up the offense he thrived in during the 2019 and 2020 seasons in Tennessee and provide the Steelers with a decent backup in the event of injury or inconsistency from Wilson.

Other veteran options still available include Teddy Bridgewater, Josh Dobbs, Tyler Huntley, Brian Hoyer, Blaine Gabbert and Carson Wentz.

A trade for Justin Fields is also worth at least briefly reconsidering. The complicating factor there is the Steelers already have a starter in Wilson, and Fields’ fifth-year option decision is due in May. Is there a way the Steelers could bring in Fields, let him learn from Wilson this season and then have him take over as the starter in 2025? Maybe. But there are a lot of moving pieces in that conversation.

Meanwhile, in the draft, it feels like every option is on the table. When the Steelers still had Pickett on the roster, a mid- to late-round flier on a developmental quarterback made sense. Now, everything appears to be in play. If they feel confident in a quarterback in any round, even the first, it would make sense to go get him.



Assessing the Steelers’ QB options at Senior Bowl: QB1 competition or finding a backup?

But based on the way Pickett’s tenure imploded, they better be certain they’re right this time around. Otherwise, they might become another franchise that endlessly spins its wheels looking for the answer behind center.

(Photos of Kenny Pickett, left, and Russell Wilson: Philip G. Pavely / USA Today, Rebecca Droke / Associated Press)

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