Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was the first of the recent college quarterbacks to rise from the ashes of a preseason day-three NFL draft grade to the No. 1 overall pick in what’s now become a trend in three of the last four NFL draft cycles.
In 2019, Kyler Murray went from a high-ceiling prospect to a dynamic dual-threat first-overall pick of the Arizona Cardinals. In 2020, Joe Burrow began his final season at LSU as a quality college quarterback but ended it with one of the greatest single seasons in the sport’s history. The Cincinnati Bengals chose him first overall, marking three years in a row that a quarterback who began the year without a first-round grade ended it as the first player picked.
The 2021 NFL draft was a return to ‘normal’ with Trevor Lawrence going wire-to-wire as the obvious top pick, but BYU’s Zach Wilson came close to continuing the ‘Mayfield streak’ to four years in a row. He went second overall to the New York Jets.
As of now, it doesn’t appear there will be a quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft who will realistically challenge for the first pick in April despite the current owner of that selection, the Detroit Lions, being an obvious team that will be in the quarterback market. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a quarterback whose stock is warming up and trending in the direction of the in-season risers before him.
Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, if nothing else, is the most experienced quarterback who will be available in the 2022 NFL Draft—and that’s a very good thing. Starting experience used to be a critical factor in a quarterback’s final grade but it’s given way to dynamic traits and high-upside tools. But experience is impossible to replicate, and Pickett’s proving this season how practice ultimately leads to development, which leads to better on-field performance.
A fifth-year senior, Pickett has thrown nearly 1,500 passes so far in his college career. That’s a lot of reps. He’s amassed nearly 11,000 yards and is approaching 70 touchdown throws. No, he isn’t breaking records (aside from Dan Marino’s Pittsburgh record for the most touchdowns accounted for) or producing jaw-dropping plays, but every dropback is another opportunity for him to work on his craft, something he’s done more than any other prospect in this year’s draft. And it’s why he’s beginning to get first-round love, including from one of TDN’s most experienced draft analysts, Joe Marino.
In Marino’s recent Lions 2022 mock draft, he sent Pickett to Detroit with their second first-round pick (from Los Angeles Rams), which right now slots 32nd overall.
In his fourth season as a starter for Pitt, Pickett has a reasonable claim that he’s been the best quarterback in college football in 2021—which has significantly elevated his draft stock and he’s now in the first-round conversation. In eight starts this season, Pickett has tallied 2,755 passing yards with 26 touchdowns, just three interceptions, and a 69.2% completion percentage. He’s making throws to all levels of the field and continues to deliver in clutch moments. He has good size, mobility, toughness, and is an ascending talent that gives Detroit a chance to find the long-term answer at the most important position on the field.
This pick would make a ton of sense for the Lions. Pickett is the most pro-ready prospect in the likely 2022 class and while his ceiling may not be as high as prospects like Malik Willis or even Desmond Ridder, his floor is certainly much higher than any of his position-mates and the risk of him being an absolute bust is as low as it can be with an inherently risky position. And it goes without saying that he’d provide Detroit’s offense with an immediate injection of juice that the incumbent, Jared Goff, simply cannot.
Is Pickett the kind of quarterback who can challenge to be the first overall selection? Probably not. But he’s squarely in the first-round mix now, and by the time the 2021 college season comes to a close, he might just be a top-10 pick.