The last time quarterback Kenny Pickett entered a training camp third on the depth chart, he was in his freshman year at Pitt. By the end of the season, he had emerged as the starter, and he held that job over the next four years, becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist, the most prolific passer in school history and a first-round NFL draft pick.
Pickett is back on familiar ground five years after he first set foot on the practice fields at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and trailed Max Browne and Ben DiNucci at his position. He exited his first NFL minicamp behind Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback hierarchy.
Barring something unforeseen, Pickett still will be the No. 3 quarterback when the Steelers report to Saint Vincent College on July 26 to open camp. Although nobody knows if he will become the No. 1 option by the end of the season – just like he did in 2017 when he upset No. 2 Miami in his lone start – Pickett is preparing as if anything is possible, but keeping expectations to a minimum.
“I didn’t think I’d walk in and be the (number) one,” Pickett said. “This is what I was expecting by coming here and earning everything I get. That’s how it goes in the game and in life.”
It’s probably not lost on Pickett that the last time the Steelers used a first-round pick on a quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger went from being the third option in the 2004 training camp to starter after injuries to Charlie Batch in the preseason and Tommy Maddox in the second week of the season.
The Steelers signed Trubisky in free agency to compete with Rudolph for the starting job, and the former Chicago and Buffalo quarterback took the first-team snaps in organized team activities and minicamp. Rudolph took the second-most reps, followed by Pickett and seventh-rounder Chris Oladokun.
With two veteran quarterbacks in the fold, the Steelers aren’t ready to rush Pickett onto the field, and he’s not exactly complaining about the team’s approach.
“You guys make a bigger deal out of competition than the players do,” Pickett said, referring to the media. “We’re out here every day competing regardless. I’m just excited to be a part of this team and to compete.”
Still, Pickett wouldn’t mind making their decision difficult. To make that happen, he has pored over film, studied the playbook and tried to improve daily during the course of six OTAs and three days of minicamp.
“Kenny has been working his tail off,” quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s a guy that is always in the office, putting in extra amount of time. He picks things up well. He’s making the most of his reps and really is showing his mobility, which was a strong part of his game in college.”
Pickett’s ability to make throws on the run is part of what led the Steelers to select him over other members of his quarterback class. In 2021, Pickett completed 67% of his passes for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns while also rushing for 241 yards and five scores.
“He has great accuracy on the move,” Sullivan said. “Some guys get off balance, and it’s hard to complete those passes.”
Looking back on his offseason work, Pickett thought he improved greatly from when he first arrived at rookie minicamp in early May.
“It was about getting good experience playing at the NFL level, going through a practice, going through the weeks, learning what it’s like to be a professional,” he said. “It 100% was a successful spring, and I want to use it to run into camp with it.”
Pickett doesn’t plan to spend his six-week summer break idly. Taking a breather now would be counterproductive to gaining a firmer grasp of offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s system, which was tweaked after the 2021 season.
“I’m nowhere where I need to be,” Pickett said at the conclusion of minicamp. “I’m going to go home and work on some fundamental things before camp. I’ll stay in the playbook and run through what we did in OTAs and minicamp and go over the scripts. I’m going to go back and do that every day. The work is going to continue.”
It also will continue in Florida where Trubisky has an offseason home. Shortly after he signed with the Steelers, Trubisky invited some of the team’s playmakers to his house for a dual workout and bonding session.
Pickett was three weeks away from being drafted by the Steelers when that gathering took place. He also plans to stay in touch with Rudolph, who stands directly in front of him on the quarterback pecking order.
“I definitely want to use those guys,” Pickett said. “They are great teammates and a great resource. I can’t say enough about the great things they are doing.”
Pickett may be pushing Rudolph for playing time, but the fifth-year veteran is open to helping the rookie find his footing in the NFL.
“Everybody has been in this situation,” Rudolph said. “I look back at high school, college, pros. You’ve been in both boats, and you understand the adversity there. If the guys have questions, I’m not going to shun anybody.”
Pickett appreciates the help as he gets used to life in the NFL. Although the Steelers and Pitt share the same training complex, Pickett no longer has to hesitate when choosing which side to enter.
“Next door was my home for five years, but this now feels like it’s my home,” he said. “I’m comfortable and where I should be. Every day feels like home.”