PITTSBURGH (AP) — George Pickens could have taken his time while rehabbing from a torn ACL in his right knee suffered last March. Could have used all of 2021 to recover. Could have taken a redshirt at Georgia and pointed toward the 2023 NFL draft.
It would have been safe, sure. The wide receiver, however, didn't believe it was necessary. Not with the Bulldogs chasing a national title. And not with a chance to head to the pros with so many of his teammates.
Less than nine months after being injured, Pickens made an impact in Georgia's run through the College Football Playoff. Just over a year removed from a bad step that threatened his career, Pickens is the latest member of a youth movement on a Pittsburgh Steelers offense that will try to make up for in fresh legs what it might lack in experience.
The Steelers grabbed the 6-foot-3 Pickens in the second round of the draft on Friday night, won over by his playmaking ability and the tenacity with which he recovered from shredding his knee. Pickens caught just five passes for 107 yards in 2021, one of them a 52-yarder in the blowout win over Alabama in the national championship.
Pittsburgh then added Texas A&M defensive lineman DeMarvin Leal in the third round, giving the Steelers depth at a position decimated by injuries last fall.
The Steelers were aware of Pickens before he got hurt during the fourth day of Georgia's spring drills. What they saw upon his return did little to change their mind about his potential.
“He didn’t have a huge role, but he came back and played late, had some significant plays, and fought to get back out there and play,” Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "To me, that’s a great show of his character right there. He could have easily said, “Hey, I’m going to get healthy and wait.'”
Instead, Pickens cushions the blow of losing JuJu Smith-Schuster to Kansas City in free agency. Pickens joins a group that includes Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and tight end Pat Freiermuth. Oh, and rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, taken with the 20th overall pick in the first round.
“I was saying everything happens for a reason, so that is also a blessing for Kenny to go last night and for me to go today,” Pickens said.
Pickens caught 85 passes for 1,240 yards in his first two seasons with the Bulldogs in 2019 and 2020 and likely would have been rated a first-rounder if not for his injury. He ran a 4.47 40-yard dash and the Steelers practically sprinted to the podium to pick him up.
“We had him as a really high guy coming out prior to his injury and we kept him there,” Canada said. “He showed us on his pro day that he was still that guy.”
The selection continues a generational shift on offense that began in earnest last April when the Steelers grabbed running back Najee Harris in the first round and Freiermuth in the second.
“I’m going to be excited about the youth,” Canada said. “They’re willing to work and they’ve been here already going. I think we got a real talented group.”
Pickens gives whomever the starting quarterback will be in Week 1 — whether it’s Pickett, Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph — another big target to join the 6-4 Claypool and the 6-5 Freiermuth.
Canada believes he can have Claypool or Pickens line up in the slot despite their size and the fact all three of Pittsburgh’s top receivers can get downfield — Pickens ran the 40-yard dash in a respectable 4.47 seconds — should only make the Steelers that much harder to defend.
“The more weapons you have the better,” Canada said. “The more competition you have in any room, the better.”
The same goes for the defensive line, which is smarting after finishing dead last in the NFL against the run in 2021. The loss of veteran defensive tackle Tyson Alualu in Week 2 and the season-long absence of Stephon Tuitt turned a longtime strength into a glaring weakness despite the stellar play of All-Pro Cam Heyward.
Alualu is expected to return in the fall, though he does turn 35 next month while Tuitt's status remains uncertain.
The 6-foot-4, 283-pound Leal could play either inside or at defensive end in Pittsburgh. He collected 8 1/2 sacks last season for the Aggies amid a career-high 58 tackles.
Now he finds himself with the chance to line up alongside Heyward, with reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt standing behind him.
“TJ, he's the craziest pass rusher,” Leal said. “I can't wait to get to work with him. Can't wait to combine our talents and get after the QB.”
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