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George Pickens is straight out of central casting and destined to be a superstar WR

I don’t want to say I told you so, but I kind of did tell you so.

It was a year ago when George Pickens, the Steelers’ then-rookie receiver, was the sensation of training camp. If there was a defensive back to defeat, he defeated him. If there was a contested catch to make, he made it. If there was a one-handed reception to nab, he nabbed it.

The body control. The speed. The size. The attitude.

The possibilities were just so exciting and endless.

But, then again, it always is with such physically-gifted football players. We can’t wait to see them in action, and when we finally got to see Pickens do his thing, both in preseason, and especially during the 2022 regular season, it was as good as advertised. Pickens recorded 52 receptions for 801 yards and four touchdowns a year ago. Not exactly worthy of Rookie of the Year votes, but kind of miraculous, considering how pedestrian Pittsburgh’s offense was for the vast majority of its 17 regular-season games.

Pickens averaged 15.4 yards per reception in 2022, a number that seems fraudulent when you think back to how incompetent and downright impotent the Steelers’ passing game was. But that’s a testament to Pickens’s abilities. Pickens had to try and make a lot of contested catches, mostly on go routes down the sideline, and the fact that he managed to corral enough of them–including perhaps the catch of the year in a Week 3 clash with the Browns on Thursday Night Football–to put himself on the map in his very first season, well, that spoke volumes.

It also boded well for Pickens’s future.

There was the matter of his diva-like tendencies; they first surfaced leading up to the 2022 NFL Draft, when anonymous scouts gave mostly cryptic reasons why Pickens could be a problem child as a professional:

Which WR is the most boom-or-bust guy?

Scout 2: George Pickens. There’s a lot of upside, but he can’t get out of his own way. He’s been enabled his whole life.

WR Coach 3: Pickens. You love his game, but there’s some issues. Do you want to work with him? He’s a top-6 talent-wise, but it’s impossible not to add those other good things. He has the size, has the really good range. He positions his body on deep throws. He consistently beats press coverage. Has good start-stops with some AI (Allen Iverson) crossover in his game. A lot of stuff in (Todd Monken’s) system translates to the NFL. But I wouldn’t touch him.

WR Coach 5 on Pickens: On tape, he is probably a top-5 wide receiver but there’s just so many red flags, and they’re big red flags. He’s got a lot of growing up to do. If he goes to the right place with a room full of veterans that help him go the right way, I think he’ll have a chance.

Those cryptic quotes were part of a Tweet from 93.7 the Fan’s Josh Rowntree, and they didn’t add much meat to the bone those scouts clearly had to pick with the young Pickens.

Fortunately, Pickens’s summer at training camp, along with his tantalizing rookie season, made folks forget about those supposed “red flags.” At least for the majority of the 2022 regular season. Unfortunately, there was that one afternoon in Atlanta, late in the year, when Pickens could be seen urging his coaches to throw him the “bleeping ball!” as he walked to the sideline following yet another failed offensive possession.

Fast-forward to 2023.

Pickens has been quoted as saying he was a Pro Bowl snub in 2022.

Now, here we are at the beginning stages of the Steelers 2023 training camp.

Pickens has looked pretty darn dominant, especially on Tuesday afternoon, the first day of padded practices, when he made a dazzling catch while being defended by rookie cornerback, Joey Porter Jr., and then proceeded to taunt Peezy Jr. by “handing” the ball to his face.

Just a few days earlier, when the two youngsters were facing off without pads, Pickens got the better of Porter by shoving him to the ground before making a comeback catch.

Pickens appears to be playing with the proverbial chip on his shoulder. In other words, he’s playing angry.

That anger was covered quite nicely in an interview that Pickens did with reporter Kevin Clark of The Ringer. 

I encourage you to check it out because it’s a fascinating read about the mindset of an ultra-talented young receiver.

Pickens talks about being the best in the world (already), and that, because of his size–6’3″, 200lbs–and catch radius, he should be getting the ball on every play. When he doesn’t, well, that’s when he plays angry and takes it out on defensive backs while blocking them into oblivion on running plays.

I’m not going to quote or paraphrase the whole thing, but if I was going to write an interview with a diva receiver for some scripted movie or television show I was producing, the quotes would look a lot like the ones Pickens gave to Kevin Clark. If I was going to cast a diva receiver for my movie or television show, he’d look an awful lot like Pickens.

Pickens has the size and the speed (4.4 in the 40) to be a superstar receiver in the NFL. He also has the demeanor, drive, hunger and, yes, anger to be one of the best at his position.

Are you worried about Pickens being a diva? Sure you are, because, as the title suggests, he’s displaying all of those “quotients.”

So what? Just because Antonio Brown has self-destructed, that doesn’t mean Pickens will follow in his footsteps.

Why can’t a receiver just be cocky and confident without everyone worrying about him imploding? Where is that same energy when a linebacker talks about playing with anger, and that he’s the best in the world? Where is that same concern when an offensive lineman talks about blocking with malicious intent?

Why does everyone get so nervous when a receiver demands that he gets the ball?

This might blow your mind, but most receivers want the damn ball. It’s like what they’re known for and stuff.

Even Hines Ward, perhaps the greatest blocking receiver of all time, got a little sensitive when he wasn’t being targeted enough.

Lynn Swann and John Stallworth once stood up and sarcastically clapped during a film session because a receiver finally caught a pass in a game during that run-centric 1976 campaign.

Stallworth told Chuck Noll that he was “pissed off” following a win during the 1979 season. Why? Because he only caught one pass.

It has to suck to be involved in 60 plays in a game and only get to do the thing you’re paid for two or three times.

Imagine if T.J. Watt had to drop back in pass coverage 90 percent of the time. What if Kenny Pickett was forced to hand the football off 95 percent of the time?

Ever watch old highlights of Jerome Bettis? Ever hear him complain about not getting enough carries during those mic’d up segments? He did that a lot. Most great running backs do. Why is it endearing when a running back wants 35 carries a game but not so charming when a receiver wants 10 targets?

Again, not every receiver is going to turn into Antonio Brown.

“Well, what about Terrell Owens?” you might be asking. “You can’t win with those types of diva receivers!” you might be insisting.

Owens is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. No, he never won a Super Bowl, but he did catch nine passes for 122 yards in Super Bowl XXXIX vs. the Patriots. That performance came just seven months after he suffered a broken leg and a torn ligament in his ankle. The Eagles may have lost, but it wasn’t because of Owens. 

It would be disingenuous for me to even suggest that Owens wasn’t a bit of a locker-room cancer. This was why he played for five different teams and likely why he was not a First-Ballot Hall of Famer.

But, again, many good receivers are confident and even a bit cocky, but most do not turn into Antonio Brown or even Terrell Owens.

Pickens has done nothing up until now except act like a super-confident 22-year-old receiver who thinks he’s destined for superstardom.

Maybe that’s because he is.

Let’s face the facts, if you’re a Steelers fan, you’ve likely always had a bit of a complicated relationship with receivers.

Nothing about Pickens should have suggested that it would be any different with him.

And that’s why I told you so last summer.

George Pickens is the latest Steelers receiver who is going to take you on a crazy rollercoaster ride.

But that doesn’t mean it will end horribly.

Just strap in and enjoy it.


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