PITTSBURGH – Plenty of players shine in preseason games, but only a fraction matter once the season gets going. It's one game, but there are encouraging signs that Steelers rookie receiver George Pickens will be one of the ones who matters, and it could be sooner than later.
His 26-yard touchdown – a marvelous snare while toe-tapping on the last bit of real estate in the back right corner of the end zone on a well-thrown pass from Mason Rudolph – is just the beginning.
Pickens also stretched his arms on an out route from Rudolph for a twisting 8-yard gain and also was the recipient of Mitchell Trubisky's first pass of the game against the Seahawks, a 9-yard gainer on a hitch.
His catches will get him attention in basic Fantasy circles, but it's the other stuff he did – things you didn't see in the highlights – that should solidify him as a potential Fantasy starter at some point this season. Things like …
- getting open on other routes he ran, including another hitch, a go and a shallow crosser
- varying his speed and not being afraid to get physical against defenders
- deftly using his hands to buy himself a little space on his touchdown
- pancaking a defensive back on one play and getting physical on another block
- running routes on run plays to engage defensive backs instead of jogging like other receivers do
"I've got to look at the tape to analyze some of those things, but from the playmaker perspective, his performance was consistent with what we've seen in practice settings," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said after the game.
On a night when fellow rookie Kenny Pickett had the crowd chanting his name for taking the field before sending them home in absolute jubilation after his game-winning touchdown pass, Pickens is the name on the tongues of Fantasy managers thanks to his accelerated skill-set while lining up almost exclusively out wide.
And it's not like the Steelers shy away from using first-year wideouts. Chase Claypool set a franchise rookie record for receiving touchdowns in a season with nine in 2020 and JuJu Smith-Schuster clinched the rookie record for receiving yards with 917 in 2017. Smith-Schuster even had seven scores that season.
"If they're playmakers, we put them in position to do something," stated Tomlin of his rookies.
One preseason game shouldn't be the barometer of whether a guy can be a difference-maker. He'll certainly earn some targets in the Steelers offense, but there are still others -- Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris and Claypool – who will command targets. And as fun as Pickett's game-winning comeback was, and as solid as Trubisky looked, there are still some quarterback concerns that could keep everyone involved from hitting their ceilings.
The Steelers can afford to be patient. Fantasy managers should too.
It's not nuts to take Pickens as the second Steelers pass-catcher off the board in drafts (unless you count Najee, in which case he's third). But you must be patient with him. You can't cut him if he gets off to a slow start against the Bengals, Patriots and Browns, three defenses that have the talent not only to disrupt him, but also his quarterback.
He's exactly the kind of player you take in Round 10 in redraft leagues. Low-risk, long-term, high-reward. Ahead of Claypool (who, frankly, would offer some interesting value if he fell considerably past Pickens), and ahead of Freiermuth (who, frankly, would offer even more interesting value than Claypool).
It's a much brighter outlook in keeper leagues. The prospect of drafting Pickens with the chance of rostering him for multiple years puts him into late Round 8. He was already a first-rounder in rookie-only drafts, but he's much closer to fifth overall now.
In Pittsburgh, playmakers play. Tomlin said it himself. Once this offense locks up its identity and long-term quarterback, Pickens should play, and play well, for a while.