Could a Pittsburgh Steeler be the favorite for offensive rookie of the year?

Which rookies are in contention for offensive rookie of the year and could a wide receiver win again in 2022?


Pittsburgh Steelers receiver George Pickens catches a touchdown against the Seahawks on Aug. 13. Justin Berl/Getty Images

Out of all the rookie offensive skill positions, George Pickens has a great shot at winning this award at the end of the season, even if he was the 11th receiver taken in the 2022 NFL Draft this past year.

Pittsburgh historically, under head coach Mike Tomlin, have developed their own drafted receivers with substantial success and the 2022 NFL Draft was no different for them. With their other drafted receiver in Calvin Austin III (former fourth-round pick from Memphis) on injured reserve due to a foot injury, the path is clear on the roster for a Steelers receiver to step up other than their previous starters.

If you want to go way back to the early days of the Tomlin era, Antonio Brown (drafted in the sixth round from Central Michigan) leads the list of All-Pro receivers as one of the biggest steals of all time in NFL Draft history. One of the best receivers in Steelers history is followed by the likes of Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace, as both were drafted in the third round from SMU and Ole Miss respectively, and both had productive seasons for either Pittsburgh or other teams later on in their careers.

Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Steelers just let their former second-round pick Juju Smith-Schuster this past offseason (signed with the Kansas City Chiefs) walk after they brought him back for 2021. Their current starters in Diontae Johnson (former third-round pick from Tulane) and Chase Claypool (former second-round pick from Notre Dame) have had a high level of success to where they were drafted, both looking to take a step as the number one and two receivers respectively.

Pickens, who was selected in the second round on day two of the 2022 NFL Draft, looks to be the next one in line. At 6’3″ 195 lbs, the rookie receiver showcased his 4.47 speed (40-yard dash) at the NFL Scouting Combine. Many scouts and draft analysts were raving about his physical tools and traits as a perimeter receiver, but the 52nd overall pick fell to the Steelers and some were asking why despite showcasing his potential in college.

At Georgia in his 3-year career there, Pickens oozed receiver talent but had some red flags in terms of injury (Torn ACL in 2021 but came back to play at the end of the season) or maturity issues with attitude and may need good coaching/discipline in order to tap into his potential. He has been suspended for games at the collegiate level for losing his cool, so some question his mental focus on the game and whether it will impact him further on the field with potential ejections or worse suspensions/fines.

Even with those off-field risks and injury concerns, Pickens was thought of to be a first-round pick if teams were comfortable enough with the other knocks that weren’t related to him as a football player.

George Pickens celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of the Peach Bowl (Joshua L. Jones-USA TODAY NETWORK/Athens Banner-Herald)

With a quick enough burst (with just enough speed to threaten defenses) and physical hands against press and jam coverages off the line, the rookie receiver can win in a few ways already and is an efficient deep ball tracker and jump ball receiver. Pickens just needs to put together some of the route running skills in the short and intermediate to be more of a dynamic playmaker than he already is and get more playing time under his belt. All that plus great hands could equal a potential top receiver for years to come.

As a freshman, Pickens started right away and led the team in most receiving categories. His sophomore year was the COVID-shortened season, so he was only the top touchdown scorer as a receiver for Georgia. In his final junior year, he tore his ACL prior to the season but came back in the last 4 games (including the College Football Playoffs) to help the Bulldogs win a National Championship.

Pickens then declared for the NFL Draft and although his stats aren’t mind-boggling, the important thing is that he is on the field and he is a certifiable baller as one of the most vicious tone setters in the run game as a blocking receiver on the perimeter as well as a receiver that has plenty of tools in the toolbox to be great.

In the preseason, Pickens already showcased the alpha dog mentality that he displayed at the collegiate level as a headache for defenses. With his size and attitude on the field toward defenders, the rookie receiver could already create mismatches and bully cornerbacks right away like this touchdown from backup quarterback Mason Rudolph.

Poor Seahawks rookie Coby Bryant gets a rude awakening in this matchup a few times this game against the Steelers. The former Cincinnati Bearcats corner was selected in the fourth round of this year’s NFL Draft and is currently the backup nickel corner in the depth chart.

For reference, the rookie corner may look small in comparison but I assure you, he is not short for a defensive back, especially one who is normally supposed to play against smaller slot receivers as the nickel defender.

At 6’1″ and 193 lbs, Bryant is almost as big as Pickens, but on the field, the Pittsburgh pass catcher imposed his will on the Seattle cornerback throughout the game. Pickens will have to prove he can do this to NFL starting veterans and more experienced cornerbacks as well and not just in a preseason game against backups and unproven rookie talents.

As George “NFL Young Boy” Pickens eventually becomes the top big-play threat for the Steelers, he does have some obstacles in front of him, particularly in acclimating to the NFL. The rookie has already become a viral phenom over social media when a clip of him watching the NFL Draft as he was being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers circulated on draft weekend, comparing him to the rapper NBA Young Boy. Here is an interview clip of him talking about that moment with former All-Pro NFL receiver Brandon Marshall from the youtube channel I Am Athlete.

After Ben Roethlisberger retired this past offseason, Pittsburgh decided to cover their bases at quarterback by signing free agent Mitch Trubisky and drafting Kenny Pickett with their first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Even though Pickett played well throughout the preseason, the Steelers decided to go with the veteran and there was a rumor that they want to stick with Trubisky as long as they can. The plan could be to redshirt the older rookie (24 years old compared to Pickens at 21 years old) for most, if not all, of the 2022 NFL season.

With Trubisky penciled in as the starter, for now, all the pass catchers in Pittsburgh will be capped by the quarterback play (based on Week 1) unless there is a switch or something changes with the offense itself. The more formally known Chicago Bears quarterback led the Steelers to a win in overtime over the Bengals 23-20, but the passing offense was mostly reduced to dink and dunk with the occasional deep throw but that will not be enough to compete with the better playoff caliber type teams.

With Claypool moving to the slot and Johnson as the top outside receiver for Pittsburgh, the former Georgia rookie has already been named as the starting outside receiver moving forward. However, Pickens also only caught one pass for 3 yards against Cincinnati in Week 1 and lost reps to the likes of Miles Boykin, a backup outside receiver, later in the game.

Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

While that is discouraging for the OROY odds, it is only the first week of the NFL for the rookie starter and Pickens can surely rebound if the offense can get going downfield in upcoming games. The rookie receiver only played 71% of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps, as offensive coordinator Matt Canada featured multiple three-receiver sets last Sunday. The snaps and playing time should only go up from here and hopefully, he pushes for more targets and snaps at the very least.

Pickens and Pickett entered the regular season as tied-in odds for OROY at +900 but once Trubisky took over as the starter, the former Pittsburgh Panther quarterback fell in the pecking order among the offensive rookies. And despite Pickens doing little to nothing in his debut, he is still tied for first on the list of potential offensive rookies, which is pretty intriguing since it didn’t affect his stock as much as I thought it would after a no-show compared to other impactful rookies.

Aug 13, 2022; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky (10) and Kenny Pickett (8) celebrate after defeating the Seattle Seahawks at Acrisure Stadium. The Steelers won 32-25. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport)

Commanders wide receiver Jahan Dotson is now leading the list of offensive rookies at +900, co-tying with Pickens at +900 (at the time I am writing this based on Draft Kings Sports Book). The rookie receiver for Washington had a big day Sunday in their win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, as the former first-round Penn State receiver hauled in 2 touchdowns in his debut and started opposite star receiver, Terry McLaurin.

Other rookie wide receivers like Drake London of the Atlanta Falcons took the starting job and showcased why he was the top receiver taken in the 2022 NFL Draft. New Orleans Saints receiver Chris Olave, New York Jets receiver Garrett Wilson, Kansas City Chiefs receiver Skyy Moore, Tennessee Titans receiver Treylon Burks, and both Green Bay Packers receivers Romeo Doubbs and Christian Watson flashed somewhat in Week 1, but their involvement in their respective offenses isn’t there to consider them candidates for OROY.

Jahan Dotson (Scott Taetsch, USA TODAY)

I would expect either Pickens or another receiver to eventually take over as the alpha in the offense, similar but surely not even remotely close to the level of what Ja’Marr Chase did last year for the Cincinnati Bengals on that Super Bowl run to win OROY or what Justin Jefferson did for the Minnesota Vikings the year before. That is on another level of elite status, so we shouldn’t expect that out of this group right out the gate. But a surging performance or dominant run for consecutive weeks, specifically post-bye week, will likely be necessary to show the public who the real OROY is.

As for running back candidates, both Dameon Pierce of the Houston Texans and Breece Hall of the New York Jets could lead the pack by the middle of the season. However, both are still on committees and split their carries with other backs on the roster so unless they take over as the main rushing attack, I wouldn’t expect one of these running backs to overtake a rookie receiver for OROY.

The last time a running back won OROY was in 2018 by New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley. So I doubt that is in the cards this year. In 2020, Justin Herbert beat out Jefferson and won as the latest quarterback to win OROY. Kyler Murray won the year before that in 2019 but for 2022, it looks like a receiver will be the likely favorite to win it, especially with all the depth of talent this past draft class had at the receiver position. And with no starting rookie quarterback threatening that top spot, a receiver will likely crown the award at the end of the year.

Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase ((Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images))

Since there are many games left to be played, this gives George Pickens a chance to make his mark and follow the footsteps of his predecessors who won or were close to winning like Jefferson and Chase.

Dotson could be the more productive player in the end but usually, the NFL tends to favor the alpha dogs in their respective offenses.

Pickens fits the mold over Dotson and if the stats are even somewhat close enough, it could come down to the wire at the end as one of the more unpredictable NFL awards every year.