AFC East Reporter
Which NFL teams have the best young cores? FOX Sports took a deep look at every team’s core of players drafted between 2019 and 2023 to ascertain which franchises have the most promising base of young talent. Our writers ranked all 32 individually, and the final result is an aggregate of all those lists. We’ll count them down for you before the start of the 2023 NFL season, starting with the worst (No. 32) all the way up to No. 1.
Some of the optimism around the Pittsburgh Steelers doesn’t quite match what we saw from quarterback Kenny Pickett in a rookie season in which he threw for 2,404 yards, seven touchdowns and nine interceptions in 13 games.
Retired linebacker Ryan Shazier is predicting a breakout season for Pickett. NFL Network analyst Jason McCourty wants to predict a Super Bowl run from Pittsburgh.
Maybe these analysts and the Steelers know something we don’t about Pickett. Or maybe they’re overestimating what he can do for the franchise in his second season.
But he is the key piece to the Steelers’ hopes of surprising in 2023. The good news? He should have plenty of support from the young core on offense. Let’s look at all those names to explore where the Steelers stand.
QB Kenny Pickett
RB Najee Harris
WR George Pickens
TE Pat Freiermuth
OLB Alex Highsmith
OG James Daniels
Standout: Alex Highsmith
The Steelers and Highsmith agreed to a four-year, $68 million extension after he tallied 14.5 sacks last season. He emerged from relative obscurity in his third NFL season. The 2020 third-round pick had just two sacks in his rookie season and six in 2021. But in 2022, he stood out as one of the team’s most important defensive playmakers. Linebacker T.J. Watt is obviously Batman for the Steelers. But Highsmith?
“He’s an elite Robin,” coach Mike Tomlin said in July. “We like to challenge him in that way. He’s growing. He’s making a name for himself in this thing. He seeks perfection. His maturation has been one that we anticipate and expect to be quite honest with you. We put quality people in this program, and they work within, and they just simply get better, and their tape does as well and he’s an example of that.”
Expect another season of 10-plus sacks and 60-plus tackles from Highsmith.
Potential breakout: WR George Pickens
He finished his rookie season with 52 catches for 801 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers are pretty darn good for a rookie. It’s not what Ja’Marr Chase did, but consider who Pickens had at quarterback. The team started Pickett for 12 games after working with Mitchell Trubisky for five. It wasn’t always pretty, and Pittsburgh finished with the ninth-fewest passing yards per game (200.6).
All things considered, Pickens had an awesome year. And the 6-foot-3, 200-pound receiver wants a lot more in his second season. Pickens told The Ringer’s Kevin Clark that he’s “the best in the whole world.”
“The stuff that I do, bro, I feel like I’m the best in the whole world,” Pickens said. “I’m big, I’m fast, low 4.4 [speed]. Catch radius is crazy. So every time I get out on the field, I do kind of play angry because I should get the ball on every play if you just look at the size and the frame. If I was a coach, I’d just throw to him every time. But that’s not how the NFL works. So every time I’m out there, that’s why I throw the blocks. I love getting the ball, and when I’m not getting the ball I play angry so the attention is back on me. I basically draw attention to myself.”
Pickens will line up alongside Diontae Johnson, who is also a terrific young wideout. It won’t be easy for Pickens to put up huge numbers if Pickett doesn’t take a big leap forward. But with that supporting cast, it seems likely that Pickett will put up 40 or 50 more passing yards per game — which could create a massive boost in production for Pickens.
[Bucky Brooks’ Breakouts: Packers QB Jordan Love, Steelers WR George Pickens lead breakout candidates]
Contracts to consider: TE Pat Freiermuth, RB Najee Harris
The Steelers’ 2020 draft class was a mess, except for Highsmith, who they’ve already locked up to a long-term deal. So let’s look at the 2021 class — admittedly a little early.
Freiermuth seemed to break out in 2022 with 63 catches for 732 yards and two touchdowns. It’ll be interesting to see if those numbers keep going up as Pickett matures. In theory, a developed quarterback should mean that there are more passing yards to go around. But Pickett also used Friermuth as a security blanket.
Maybe as Pickett sees the field better, Freiermuth will see the ball less often. Regardless of Pickett’s trajectory, Friermuth has the talent to ascend as a top-tier tight end. That’ll mean big money.
Steelers, Broncos, Panthers are Colin’s new playoff teams in 2023
There might not be a worse time for Harris to hit free agency, given that the NFL’s top rushers can’t get paid. Even Miles Sanders, who came off a huge year, got just $11 million guaranteed from the Carolina Panthers as a free agent this offseason. Saquon Barkley couldn’t get much in the way of a raise. Jonathan Taylor is demanding a trade. It’s awful — and, given that Harris has averaged fewer than four yards per carry in his career, he might struggle to re-up for big money. He’s 25 and won’t hit free agency for another two years. Yikes.
- Alex Highsmith ranks first in strip sacks (five), first in forced fumbles (six) and tied for second in sacks (17.5) in his past 20 games dating back to Week 16 of the 2021 season.
- Diontae Johnson’s 340 receptions in his first four years in the NFL are the most in Steelers history and fourth-most in league history. His 3,646 receiving yards are the fourth-most by a player in franchise history over his first four years.
- Najee Harris is one of two players in the NFL with 2,200 or more rushing yards and 650 or more receiving yards since the start of the 2021 season.
On Kenny Pickett
“Still unknown. Like the physical tools to be a pocket passer. Needs a better run game around him to help take stress off him. Decently accurate and has arm strength. At this point in career, [opposing defenses] need to make him process post-snap. Disguise and variety of looks is key.” —NFL coordinator
“It is still a little early to tell just how good Kenny Pickett is going to be, because I was not that impressed watching him play last year, but he won games for them last season and he has some playmakers to get the ball to in that offense. I think the command and poise he showed in the pocket and ability to dissect coverages is a welcome positive after there were some questions about exactly what he was reading coming out of that Pitt Panthers offense. I’m not sure you are ever going to get an elite starting QB in this league out of his skill set, but I do think he will keep things competitive in a division where he is clearly No. 4 from a talent standpoint.” —AFC Scout
Can Kenny Pickett become a franchise quarterback?
On George Pickens
“Pickens could become the most exciting and intimidating big receiver in Pittsburgh since Plaxico Burress. He uses his height, leaping ability, long arms and strong hands to win above the rim. Also gobbles up yardage in a hurry with long, galloping strides that make him even faster on the field than he timed prior to the draft. Every team in the league is looking for a receiver who can ‘big-boy’ opponents.” —NFL talent evaluator
On Najee Harris
“Harris has more wiggle and better hands than most runners his size. Lacks the elite juice to make defenders miss or run away from them, but he is a punishing, blue-collar runner. He’s a bell-cow and the kind of security blanket who quietly played a key role in Kenny Pickett’s rookie season.” —NFL talent evaluator
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.
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