The Pittsburgh Steelers entered a new era with the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger and came into the 2022 NFL Draft hoping to lay down some foundations for that fresh start.
There’s certainly plenty of work to do. Pittsburgh fans using their Pennsylvania sportsbook bonuses to play in the NFL futures markets will see that the Steelers are big underdogs with most sportsbooks, which is not surprising given that two Wild Card losses is all they have to show for their efforts over the last four NFL seasons. So, will their draft business in 2022 help them to improve that record?
Kenny Pickett – QB
The Steelers had been very public about the research they had conducted on quarterbacks throughout the buildup, so all eyes were on them on Thursday to see which way they would go at the end of those deliberations. Despite speculation that they were interested in Liberty’s Malik Willis, the Steelers went with Kenny Pickett, who became the first quarterback off the board.
In his fifth season with the Pittsburgh Panthers, Pickett threw for 4,319 yards, 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions, earning him First-Team All-America accolades. He also scored five touchdowns on the ground. The most game-ready quarterback in the draft, he may not have the same ceiling as Willis but he is a precise, efficient passer with excellent passing mechanics and a wealth of experience.
Pickett’s hand size, which forces him to throw without a glove, is a disadvantage, but his football IQ, functional mobility and accuracy across several platforms are excellent, and he provides Pittsburgh with just what they need: a local product ready to start right now.
George Pickens – WR
For the second time in three years, the Steelers added a big receiver in Round 2, in the form of George Pickens, from Georgia. Pickens recorded 14 touchdown receptions in his first two seasons with the Bulldogs, although was missing for most of 2021 due to a ruptured ACL.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound athlete, one of the most physically gifted athletes in the class, is all about speed on the outside as a potentially game-changing receiver. He’s still a little lean and will certainly need to bulk up, but he has a lot of potential. Although not a polished blocker, he is willing enough, although he will also need to show that he is fully recovered from his knee problem.
Pickens will need to be consistent in all aspects of his game, including route running and on-field behavior, but if he can, he may be able to establish himself as the number one receiver over time.
DeMarvin Leal – DT
DeMarvin Leal of Texas A&M was selected in the third round by Pittsburgh to fill another need. Leal was a five-star recruit out of high school and had 8.5 sacks and 58 tackles for the Aggies last season. A youthful, quick and bendy interior defensive tackle, there was no doubt that he showed tremendous potential in his junior season at Texas A&M, and being ready to compete in the finest league in the country right away speaks volumes about his ability and maturity.
Inside, he wins against the run and the pass with his incredible arm length and although a lot of Leal’s game is still potential right now, his development in 2021 was very encouraging. He needs to find a little more consistency, but his impressive strength and athleticism make him a potential three-technique tackle, and eventually a defensive line starter.
Calvin Austin III – WR
The Steelers came into Day 3 with four picks and numerous positions to target, and they started with Calvin Austin III, Memphis’ electrifying wide receiver and returner. Austin’s explosive speed as a 5-7, 170-pound player is unmistakable and will endear him to Steeler fans, and while his stature will be an issue, his ball skills and athleticism on and off the field offer him a shot to be a WR3 or WR4 in an NFL scheme, with his punt-return skills being a huge plus.
Connor Heyward – TE/FB
It wasn’t the biggest surprise of the draft on Day 3 when Pittsburgh took Michigan State fullback and tight end Connor Heyward, younger brother of defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, in a move that means the Steelers now have four sets of brothers on their roster.
Heyward began his college career as a running back at Michigan State, then was persuaded to switch positions under new coach Mel Tucker. Tucker and his staff transformed Heyward into a versatile tight end/H-back with good hands, instinctive athleticism and toughness, who has all of the credentials to be an archetypal Steelers player.
Only time will tell but it is clear that the Steelers focused on characterful, tough players with the right kind of mentality to revitalize Pittsburgh football, and Steelers fans will be excited to see what they can do as the post-Roethlisberger era gets under way.