Quarterbacks who have the necessary traits can emerge at any time, and as the QB4 conversation for the 2021 NFL Draft heats up, the search for these quarterbacks has intensified. One name that continues to be overlooked is Pittsburgh Panthers QB Kenny Pickett, who’s only trended up through four games, and could be a rising NFL Draft prospect with legitimate starting potential.
The race for QB4 in the 2021 NFL Draft
Beyond the consensus top three quarterback prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft, there remains an open conversation as to who deserves the QB4 mantle, and one could make a case that the candidates legitimately number over a dozen.
Kyle Trask is likely the popular front runner, as he’s gotten off to a statistically dominant start to the 2020 campaign. Behind him, Kellen Mond, K.J. Costello, and Tanner Morgan also find themselves in the mix as established draft hopefuls. Additionally, a few other Power Five passers like Brock Purdy, Jamie Newman, and Spencer Sanders also have bids to make, although slow starts, opt-outs, and injuries have clouded their projections, respectively.
Mac Jones and Sam Ehlinger didn’t come into the season as legitimate contenders, but early games with high volume have them surging. Myles Brennan will start to move as he produces more game tape. Non-Power Five signal callers like Shane Buechele and Desmond Ridder have outside shots at moving up the ranks, and even lesser-heralded quarterbacks like D’Eriq King, Zach Wilson, and Jarret Doege have fans as deep sleepers.
Usually, you’ll hear most, if not all, of these names before Kenny Pickett’s. And that, to me, is a travesty.
Pickett doesn’t yet have the name recognition to vie for the QB4 title, but he has some of the most explosive upside among his counterparts and one of the most complete arrangements of traits. He not only deserves to be in the QB4 conversation but near the front of it. Why is Pickett continually underrated, and more importantly, why shouldn’t he be?
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Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett has all the traits, none of the NFL Draft hype
A true senior, Pickett is in his third season as the full-time starting quarterback for the Pitt Panthers, and yet, he doesn’t have the established notoriety that other quarterbacks with less experience boast.
Part of the reason Pickett lacks notoriety can be attributed to his school; while the Pittsburgh Panthers have been comfortably above the .500 mark during head coach Pat Narduzzi’s tenure, they only have one bowl win to show for it. Pitt has often been overshadowed by ACC counterparts such as Clemson, Miami, Louisville, NC State, and Virginia Tech.
With that being said, Pickett himself is also partly to blame for his inability to gain traction in the draft community. One can best describe his early play as “unhinged.” The Kenny Pickett of 2018 and 2019 showed plenty of flashes, but those flashes were often nestled between chaotic play sequences, bouts of slow processing, and questionable decision making.
Pickett’s inconsistency is noticeable in his production. Despite starting all 14 games in 2018, Pickett only passed for 12 touchdowns and six interceptions and completed less than 60 percent of his passes. In 2019, Pickett eclipsed the 3,000-yard mark and won a Bowl game, but he still only passed for 13 scores and nine interceptions and averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt.
The raw stats not only reflect Pickett’s volatility but also dissuade people from recognizing the upside he has. For a large part of his career, Pickett has been a quarterback who possessed the necessary traits but lacked the necessary control. Now, however, he’s adding elements of control to his game, and the developmental quarterback is suddenly developing.
What makes Pitt QB Kenny Pickett such an exciting prospect?
Pickett’s upside jumps off the screen, so when we’re talking about why he’s such an exciting prospect, it feels right to start there: With his physical upside, specifically his athleticism and arm talent.
Kenny Pickett’s physical abilities
The throw below, which took place in Pitt’s 2020 ACC debut against Syracuse, does well to provide a first impression of Pickett’s arm talent. Look at the speed that Pickett generates with a crisp, compact throwing motion, sending the ball through a rapidly closing window to his receiver for a touchdown.
Pickett can generate elite levels of velocity with ease, and his motion is very efficient. It’s also worth noting that Pickett’s fundamentals are flawless in the play above. He keeps his base set, and his shoulders squared, slides upward when he senses pressure, and launches from a set position where he can generate substantial torque with his hip rotation. Pickett has naturally fluid mechanics, and that helps his arm talent shine through.
Of course, generating velocity in a clean pocket is one thing. Generating velocity off-platform is another. There have been plenty of case studies at the NFL level detailing the importance of off-script ability, and specifically, the arm elasticity and torso flexibility to generate velocity without the aid of mechanical congruence.
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More simply put, quarterbacks aren’t always going to be able to go through their entire process without interruption, so having the traits to produce regardless is a valuable thing. The Pitt QB has these traits. Pickett is adept at throwing off-base too.
Check out the clip below, where Pickett’s process is interrupted by a blitz up the middle. Pickett rolls out to his left, running against his preferred side, and manages to square his shoulders and generate enough torque to fire a pass that just barely makes it to his receiver.
Without the velocity that Pickett is able to generate on this throw, this ball is very likely picked off. But instead, with his torso flexibility and arm elasticity, Pickett was able to give it enough power to squeeze past the looming cornerback and into the hands of his receiver.
Pickett’s above-average athleticism at 6-foot-2, 220, allows him to have these opportunities to extend plays, and it starts in the pocket, where Pickett’s mobility gives him the foundational edge necessary to outlast defensive linemen.
Have a look at the next play, where Pickett again goes off-script and produces off-platform. This time, he starts to step up into the pocket, but is forced to divert course, bounces outside, and completes a first-down pass to his receiver before the safety closes in.
Quick pressure is often a death knell for young quarterbacks, but in the modern NFL, having the mobility to withstand these moments and extend the play is crucial. Pickett has the mobility needed, but even then, it’s not all about the physical traits.
On top of mobility and escapability, quarterbacks proficient at extending chances need to have the natural feel for pressure, the eye discipline, and the composure necessary to turn a broken play into a positive. Pickett displays all of these traits at once in the clip below.
Here, Pickett, upon taking the snap, is immediately faced by a free rusher on the left side, and he whirls around to the left and starts rolling to the left side of the field. As soon as he does this, the Pitt QB brings his eyes back around, and rather than panicking, he immediately finds his receiver and uncorks an accurate pass that hits right between the numbers.
Keep in mind that this is on a fourth-and-four in the closing minutes of the first half, with Pitt being down a touchdown. This is an absolutely clutch play from Pickett, and without his mold of off-script feel and physical ability, it might not happen.
Pickett’s volatility under duress has been a knock in previous seasons, but in 2020, he’s off to a very strong start in that department. Pickett’s physical potential allows him to push the boundaries and take risks, but egregious mistakes and careless plays are becoming a rarity with him under center. The man has nerves of steel, as evidenced by this next play.
On third down, losing against the Wolfpack, in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, Pickett has a rusher heading straight for him. Some quarterbacks curl up and take the “L” here, but Pickett quite literally does not flinch. He stands tall, locks in on his target, and fires a laser that’s placed adequately for yards after the catch in a crucial situation.
Regardless of whether it’s a mental trait or a physical trait, Pickett has most of the qualities you want to see from a modern signal-caller. He’s athletic, he generates velocity with ease, he has a degree of natural accuracy, and he’s also very tough, composed, and quick-thinking in the face of adversity.
But we already knew Kenny Pickett was talented, and we already knew he was a competitor. What has Pickett added to his game in 2020, to supplement his profile as a 2021 NFL Draft prospect?
Continue for more on Pittsburgh Panthers QB Kenny Pickett.