Why the Kenny Pickett era had to end, what it means and what comes next (2024)

  • Why the Kenny Pickett era had to end, what it means and what comes next (1)

    Brooke Pryor, ESPN Staff WriterMar 15, 2024, 08:00 PM ET

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    • Previously covered the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star and Oklahoma University for the Oklahoman.

PITTSBURGH -- Six-hundred and eighty-seven days after he was drafted, Kenny Pickett, the No. 20 pick and quarterback owner Art Rooney II introduced on April 29, 2022, as the man who broke all of Dan Marino's college records, is gone.

Traded to Philadelphia, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter, hours after the Pittsburgh Steelers welcomed Russell Wilson into their building, Pickett's departure doesn't signal a complete overhaul of the old-school, loyal organization's way of thinking. If anything, it reinforces that core tenet at the heart of the franchise. It's also an admission that the organization was wrong.

Limited by a talent level that fell short of his draft pick and stubborn decision-makers who stepped in too late, Pickett expressed displeasure with Wilson's signing by requesting a trade. It spelled the end of an era that some would argue never should have started.

The root of the problem, though, doesn't lie with Pickett, but in the organization's refusal to establish a clear succession plan behind Ben Roethlisberger.

In chasing ghosts of the past, the Steelers failed to adequately prepare for their future, preferring instead to rewrite the organization's previous mistakes and hang on to the glory days.

And now, two years after Roethlisberger's long-anticipated retirement, the team is exactly in the place it tried to avoid: square one ... almost.

Signing Wilson, the impetus for Pickett's journey across the Commonwealth, keeps the Steelers from completely starting from scratch. At age 35, Wilson's best years are behind him, but he's more than capable of being a solid bridge quarterback, especially coming off a season where he threw 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He said in a Friday news conference he "felt like myself again."

It's the type of move the Steelers arguably should've pursued two years ago to keep from reaching for a quarterback in a historically subpar draft class of signal-callers. And they almost did, but after signing former first-round pick Mitch Trubisky to a modest two-year contract, the organization undercut the veteran by drafting Pickett less than two months later.

Of course, the Steelers could have avoided that scenario if they had invested any significant draft capital in the quarterback position. Instead, the team drafted Mason Rudolph with a third-round pick in 2018. And after Rudolph's selection was met with disdain by Roethlisberger, the team didn't use another pick on a quarterback until Roethlisberger officially retired following a wild-card loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Jan. 16, 2022. Though Roethlisberger returned from season-ending elbow surgery in 2019 for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, it was clear his days were numbered.

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The team, though, let Roethlisberger largely dictate the end of his career. When Roethlisberger finally retired, the team had two quarterbacks on the roster: Rudolph and former first-rounder Dwayne Haskins. The team signed Trubisky in March 2022. Haskins, who had shown some promise with a fresh start after starting his career with Washington, tragically died a month later.

The formula could've worked if the Steelers had drafted another quarterback that year. Trubisky could've started for a season while a rookie developed behind the scenes and eventually took over in his second season -- something akin to Patrick Mahomes working behind Alex Smith for a season. But using a precious first-round pick on the city's adopted son and Pitt football hero? Trubisky never stood a chance.

The chants for Pickett started from the moment training camp opened at St. Vincent College, and four weeks into the season, Tomlin yanked Trubisky for Pickett at halftime, unceremoniously beginning the rookie's tenure as a starting quarterback. Pickett found bursts of magic in his first season, leading three fourth-quarter comebacks, and he showed moxie and intangibles that suggested maybe the Steelers really had hit on something. But after what turned out to be a fools' gold preseason, the fairy dust ran out. Pickett ended his Steelers tenure in uniform on the bench while Rudolph started a playoff game.

From the rubble of the Pickett fallout, the Steelers have the opportunity to construct a sturdier future.

With Pickett gone, the Steelers are no longer burdened by a first-round quarterback who falls short of expectations. There's no longer a ticking clock counting the days until the club has to make a fifth-year option decision on him in May 2025.

Instead, the team has just one quarterback on the roster, one who spent time Friday afternoon expressing the joy he felt mentoring young teammates, and one who helped Jarrett Stidham, his presumed successor in Denver, prepare for his first start with the Broncos.

There also happens to be a former first-round quarterback on the trade market, one who could benefit from a year learning from a consummate professional and Super Bowl-winning signal-caller. In trading Pickett, the Steelers opened the door to a possible trade for Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields, something that seemed all but impossible while the organization -- and most recently general manager Omar Khan -- outwardly expressed "full faith" in their own young, homegrown quarterback.

With Pickett's departure, the pretenses can be dropped, and the Steelers have an opportunity not for a do-over, but for establishing a clear path forward without any baggage from the past.

In two years since he took over following the 2022 draft, Khan has proved capable of bucking Steelers traditions with big-name free agent signings and trades at the deadline and during the draft. A couple of breaths after expressing that faith in Pickett in Indianapolis two weeks ago, Khan also said the position would have "strong competition." And though he grinned as reporters asked him about the possibility of signing free agent quarterbacks or making a splash trade, Khan was also clear that he had "an obligation to look at every avenue that's out there to try to make us a better football team."

Friday was the first step.

Why the Kenny Pickett era had to end, what it means and what comes next (2024)
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