April 20, 2024

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Russell Wilson joining the Steelers is a bad sign for Kenny Pickett

Russell Wilson joining the Steelers is a bad sign for Kenny Pickett

PITTSBURGH — Standing before a small group of reporters on the second floor of an Indianapolis hotel during the 2024 NFL Combine, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Omar Khan expressed his “complete confidence” in quarterback Kenny Pickett.

Ten days later, just before midnight, Russell Wilson posted a video of Steelers fans waving an awesome towel set to the song “Renegade” by Styx and tagged the Steelers on his social media platforms, confirming what league sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter Sunday Night: The Super Bowl-winning quarterback and nine-time Pro Bowler will soon sign with the Steelers on a one-year, team-friendly deal.

In a move that challenges the Steelers' traditional team-building tactics and appears to ignore the basic principle of loyalty, Khan's actions Sunday night spoke louder than his words less than two weeks ago.

The Steelers' brass has repeatedly said he wants to compete for the team's 2022 first-round pick, but the Super Bowl-winning quarterback — even past him in his prime — is more than just a camp arm to push Pickett. Pickett, of course, is still under contract, but the competition to keep the starting job is getting tougher — and it may not be a competition at all.

By signing the 35-year-old Wilson, the Steelers are telegraphing their evaluation of Pickett, suggesting he is in a far more fragile position than has been publicly expressed. The move also signals another internal belief: The Steelers are in win-now mode and believe they are a quarterback away from erasing a drought of playoff victories that stretches back to 2016.

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From Wilson's perspective, the move makes perfect sense. In Pittsburgh, Wilson has a clear path to getting started in an organization with a rich winning tradition and an established structure under the future Hall of Fame coach. Schematically, Wilson's skill set and new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith's tendencies have the potential to be a match made in football heaven.

In his final season in Denver, Wilson had a QBR of 80 when using play action, compared to a QBR of 40 without it. He threw 11 touchdowns to one interception while playing and averaged 7.4 yards per attempt. Without running the play, Wilson threw 15 touchdowns to 7 interceptions and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt.

During his three-year tenure in Atlanta, Smith's offenses used the run game at the second-highest rate (32%). At Tennessee, Smith employed a similar philosophy, building a balanced offense thanks to a tremendous ground game anchored by Derrick Henry and a complementary passing game.

Although he was criticized for his decision-making and struggles in his first season in Denver, Wilson showed significant improvement in his second season before being released. Wilson improved from throwing for 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2022 to 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2023. The Steelers haven't had a quarterback throw 26 touchdowns in a season since Ben Roethlisberger threw for 33 in 2020.

Despite all of the improvements he made in 2023, Wilson still has some issues holding onto the ball for too long. His average time to throw (3.06 seconds) was the second-longest in the league, trailing only Justin Fields, and last season, the Steelers struggled in pass protection, ranking 17th in pass block win rate. That means adding another first-round offensive tackle to pair with 2023 first-round pick, Broderick Jones, is even more important in April's draft.

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From a short-term football standpoint, adding Wilson is a huge boost to the Steelers' offense. But in the long run, his signing raises more questions than answers.

With a $1.2 million contract, Wilson makes financial sense. In his short tenure as general manager, Khan quickly built a reputation for tackling and finding good deals for short-term solutions, such as the acquisitions of cornerback Patrick Peterson, receiver Allen Robinson, and linebacker Kwon Alexander. For a veteran's minimum salary, Wilson fits the bill as Khan's marquee signing.

And while Wilson expressed his desire to win two more Super Bowls in a recent podcast interview, realistically he still has more days left than on the horizon. Wilson is not a long-term solution, and his addition to the Steelers' quarterback room clutters the future of an already uncertain position.

The Steelers have to decide on Pickett's fifth-year option in May 2025. If Wilson does get the starting job, evaluating Pickett and his abilities outside of Matt Canada's offense becomes more difficult. If Pickett doesn't get any significant playing time this year, taking that option — which starts at $22 million for quarterbacks this season — would be financially irresponsible. Does this mean the Steelers will be back in the market for a quarterback in the 2025 draft? Or maybe in 2026 after Pickett – or even Wilson – plays his final season?

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The safe option was once the most expected one: re-signing longtime backup and late-season starter Mason Rudolph for real competition with Pickett, and maybe even one that tips the scales a little in Pickett's favor. Instead, the Wilson signing closes the door on Rudolph's return and, according to a league source, he is expected to test free agency.

The Steelers have typically been conservative in their approach to free agency with a preference for building through the draft, rejecting tradition for what they hope will be a quick-fix deal. This may be the first step out of the cycle of mediocrity. Or it could cement their place in a directionless, post-Roethlisberger purgatory.

ESPN Statistics & Information contributed to this report.