Who’s your pick for QB1 in the 2022 NFL Draft? It could be as many as five answers at this point, but one player who’s gained buzz in the QB1 conversation this year is Kenny Pickett. In fact, if you look at Pickett compared to players like Matt Corral, Malik Willis, Carson Strong, and Sam Howell, no one has seized the opportunity in 2021 quite like Pickett has.
Even so, as the hype builds around Pickett, there remains a terse lack of commitment. A startling lack of consensus surrounds a player that is now likely to be a first-round pick. Can Pickett become the player that so many — or so few — believe he can be? Can Pickett be QB1? Let’s discuss.
Is Kenny Pickett QB1 in the 2022 NFL Draft?
No matter how you spin it, Pittsburgh Panthers QB Kenny Pickett has been one of the top quarterbacks in college football this season.
Ahead of the ACC Championship Game, he’s completed 314 of 464 passes (67.7%) for 4,066 yards, 40 touchdowns, and just 7 interceptions — embarking on a rise reminiscent of Joe Burrow. He’s also tacked on 213 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground. Along the way, he helped the Panthers become ACC Coastal division champs.
Out of nowhere, Pickett has broken school records and placed himself in the running for several prestigious awards, including the Heisman Trophy. But as we’ve seen in the past, award-winners aren’t always franchise quarterbacks. The tape is always supreme with quarterbacks. So what does Pickett’s 2021 tape show?
From my observations, Pickett’s tape shows a sharp passer with underrated physical upside. But I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. So let’s look at the tape together. Here are some defining plays from Pickett this year.
Analyzing Kenny Pickett’s 2021 tape
One of the most easily recognizable qualities of Pickett in 2021 is his improved consistency in structure. Pickett’s mechanics were spotty at times earlier in his career. But this year, he’s largely been consistent. He has good mechanical congruence between his upper and lower body, and through his mechanics, he channels his arm talent well. He can generate great velocity, especially on intermediate throws like this.
Mentally, Pickett has improved just as much. He’s always proven to be a relatively quick processor, but his decision-making has followed suit this year. Notice in the play above, Pickett sees the linebacker pursuing the underneath route, freeing up the seam receiver. As soon as he sees that, Pickett aligns his base with his target, and fires a dart. He also does a great job throwing his receiver open and leading him away from contact.
Pickett’s strong operational work is visible in the play below as well. Working near the red zone, Pickett starts his progressions with the 9-route, then works down to the quick out. When he finds both covered, he resets left. Notice how he shuffles back a couple yards when he senses pressure. This subtle preparatory move gives him a lane to step up into when he throws. He keeps reading the field, and when he sees a window opening, he rolls forward and unravels a high-velocity rope into the back of the end zone.
In years past, Pickett didn’t always look this comfortable working in structure. But with experience and good health, he’s turned a corner this year, and he’s maximizing his talent.
Pickett’s throwing ability
Pickett’s throw velocity is impressive and clearly passes the threshold required for an NFL starter. But the Pitt QB isn’t just a fastball thrower. He mixes touch and velocity on his throws as well, launching the ball downfield while also dropping it into tight buckets. The throw below — from a rain-drenched North Carolina game — is a great example.
Here’s another example. This is the throw that gave Pickett the all-time passing yardage record at Pitt. Pickett can identify these deep middle-of-the-field shots quickly. And once he sees them, he’s not shy about pulling the trigger. It’s one thing to have that mentality. Pickett has the initial push and accuracy to capitalize.
This next throw shows Pickett’s valuable blend of touch and pace. But here, Pickett also mixes some eye manipulation into the puzzle. Look at where his eyes are pointing at the start of the rep. Pickett initially looks left to hold the safety and open up this shot, then instinctively keys in on his target and drops a seed outside the numbers.
We always become enamored by arm talent and athleticism in draft evaluation, but the eyes are just as important as a tool for quarterbacks. Here, Pickett not only displays the awareness of how to use his eyes but also displays some impressive post-snap recognition. He saw the defense rotating into single high, and actively manipulated that look for a big gain.
Pickett’s off-script traits
Pickett’s 2021 tape shows a quarterback who’s mechanically and mentally sound. But let’s not stumble upon the notion that he’s merely a high-floor, low-ceiling quarterback. Pickett’s floor is certainly higher because of his experience and quick processing, but the Pitt QB also has underrated talent. That shows up most prominently in his off-script ability.
The play below is a great introduction to Pickett’s ability to go off-script and thrive out of structure. Immediately, he encounters pressure to his right. But Pickett doesn’t panic. As soon as he reaches the top of his drop, he steps forward and navigates into open space. He starts to roll out to his left, but keeps his eyes up, and quickly spots an open man downfield. Not a second later does he pull the trigger, hitting his target dead on.
A particularly impressive detail from the play above is Pickett’s hip rotation as he unloads his throw. Even as he rolls to his left, he’s able to snap his hips back and generate enough torque to put velocity on this throw. It’s this natural off-platform ability that allows Pickett to remain a threat even on collapsed plays.
Here’s another example — only this time, Pickett is rolling to his right. He encounters a heavy blitz and uses his agility to evade, then runs outside the pocket. He looks like he’s about to turn upfield and run, but he spots a man downfield and flattens to the sideline. From there, he’s able to once again float off-base and deliver an accurate ball.
The play below not only further accentuates Pickett’s natural off-platform ability, but also his awareness and field vision when going off-script. Here, he draws defenders to the sideline, then throws across his body and picks up a nice gain.
The drawbacks of Pickett’s style
Pickett has a lot of off-script successes on tape, and that’s no accident. He sees the field quickly in those situations, but he also has high-level talent as an off-platform passer. His arm strength is not elite, but he has great arm talent, in the sense that his arm is elastic enough to generate velocity off-base, unhinged from his lower body.
Of course, with this natural ability, Pickett can get over-zealous. Like a true gunslinger, he’s not afraid to take risks and push the boundaries when going off-script. That allows for big plays, but it also breeds mistakes. Pickett gets away with the one below, but an NFL defender might pick this ball off.
The following play is another example. Pickett evades pressure well but finds himself being worked into a corner. He’s fading back slightly and needs to throw this ball away. But instead, Pickett tries to force it across his body. He can’t get great velocity on the pass, and the result is an errant throw across the middle of the field.
Pickett generally has good situational awareness, but there are instances like this on film where his tenacious gunslinger mentality precipitates carelessness. It’s gotten better since 2019 and 2020, but it’s still there.
Even in structure, Pickett will take calculated risks. It’s better to have a quarterback who takes advantage of those downfield opportunities. But there are times when Pickett can be more patient and wait for the right look.
Nevertheless, Pickett is more consistent than most. On top of his experience, processing ability, and proactivity as a playmaker, Pickett is also a high-end positional athlete with functional NFL arm talent. In 2021, he’s looked worthy of an early-round pick. But for Pickett, play isn’t the only factor.