Kenny Pickett's Joe Burrow Vibes
NFL Super Bowl - MOBILE, ALABAMA: The unofficial 2022 draft season was less than 10 minutes old when all hell broke loose.
"He's got a really cool way about him," Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy said of University of Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett at Tuesday's introductory press conference. "Kinda reminds me a little bit of [Joe] Burrow … guys just gravitate to him. He's a leader."
Pickett was already embroiled in a "hand size" controversy—that most majestic of all pre-draft controversies—when he declined to have his hand measured at Monday's weigh-ins. Now he was being compared to Joe Burrow just hours after Burrow led the Bengals to the Super Bowl?
"That's a helluva comparison," Pickett joked when asked moments later Nagy's statement. "I'm gonna have to have Jim intro me like that everywhere I go."
The Pickett = Burrow questions from the press continued until Nagy felt the need to unpop the balloon. "Kenny, sorry for opening up the Burrow floodgates," Nagy shouted from offstage. Then, to the press pool: "I meant as a 'guy.'"
Draft hoopla is off and running, folks!
Pickett entered Senior Bowl week as the VERY provisional QB1 on the FO Forty, the all-new centerpiece of Football Outsiders' draft coverage which will debut in a few weeks. He's a fifth-year super-senior coming off a 42-touchdown season after a middling 2020 campaign. Pickett is not a Burrow-level prospect by any means, but he reminds Walkthrough a lot of the young Andy Dalton on tape. Don't laugh: Dalton was an immediate starter who led his team to the playoffs as a rookie and for several seasons afterward.
An extra year in college would be a negative for prospects at other positions, particularly wide receiver. But our QBASE metric is likely to love Pickett's 48 starts over the last four seasons. Naturally, Pickett himself sees his experience as beneficial. "The amount of football I have seen is a huge positive going into the next chapter," he said.
Pickett needed that extra year in college. He nearly participated in last year's Senior Bowl and entered the 2021 draft before consulting with Nagy and others. "I was really straight-up with Kenny," Nagy said. "Based on what we saw and heard from the NFL, he was gonna be a Day 3 player."
"Everything I was hearing was Day 3," Pickett said. "And I just was thinking of myself as a higher player than that. So I wanted to come back and really improve my game and have no regrets."
Pickett played through an ankle injury for much of 2020, which hurt both his mobility and his draft stock. "He's just a different player on tape," Nagy said. "He's getting out of the pocket a lot more this year. Showing a lot more mobility. Bouncier in the pocket. I thought his arm strength had improved this year, it showed a little more zip.
"When you boil it down, he knows how to play the position."
As for the hand size thing, Pickett plans to be measured at the combine. Walkthrough isn't going to get involved into a hand-size brouhaha unless he measures in at 8 inches or something. (Nine inches is the established minimum: below that, an NFL-sized football truly does become hard to grip in the rain or cold). "The good news is that I played in Pittsburgh," Pickett said. "Anyone who has been to Pittsburgh knows it's not the nicest place to play in October and November." Indeed, Pickett led the Panthers to an impressive 30-23 overtime victory over North Carolina in a steady Thursday night downpour last November.
One might say the performance was downright Burrow-esque.
We promise to keep that sort of hype to a minimum during this year's Football Outsiders draft coverage. But I have covered enough Senior Bowls to know that quarterbacks are drafted as much based on how they come off during team interviews as how they look on the practice field or film. If Pickett gives off Burrow vibes to evaluators, he's going to end up near the top of lots of draft boards, even if his "ceiling" appears rather low.
Pickett admittedly had a rocky day of practice on Tuesday. So did all of the quarterbacks here in Mobile. Shaky Tuesday practices aren't unusual down here, and they are forgiven when a quarterback shows progress throughout the week or if he tears it up in interviews. Pickett appears to have that second part down. "He's gonna crush this process," Nagy said of Pickett.
In a way, he already has.
Senior Bowl Notes
Tuesday's practices sucked.
Both the Jets-coached National team and the Lions-coached American team went out of their way to show scouts, the media, and themselves as little as possible. There were few offense-versus-defense drills. The National team did not even bother with a 7-on-7 session. I don't think I have ever attended an NFL practice of any kind without a 7-on-7 session before Tuesday. Each practice ended with a few brief 11-on-11 series. Otherwise: long stretching sessions, lots of special teams installation, and tons of practice against air.
At one point, the Lions-coached team lined up for some half-field reads work (two receivers and a quarterback versus three defenders), managed a few fitful reps between long stretches of disorganization, then spent about three minutes simply mulling around waiting for the linemen to show up for full-squad sessions. If actual Lions practices are that turgid, the team won't reach the playoffs again until 2034.
It didn't used to be this way, mind you: Senior Bowl practices of the past, even in shells, featured lots of spirited receiver-versus-cornerback drills, "pit" sessions, and 7-on-7s. Folks around the campfire tell me that East-West Shrine Game practices (featuring lower-caliber prospects) were designed to give both scouts and reporters more of what we want out of what amounts to a three-day player evaluation exercise. Senior Bowl coaches have lately treated the week like the first three days of July training camp, which negates much of the advantage those coaches are supposed to get when stocking their draft boards. NFL coaches have become so secretive that they would deny themselves knowledge in their quest to deny it to others.
Anyway, it was hard to come away with many meaningful impressions under the circumstances. But darn it, I'm gonna try.
- Liberty quarterback Malik Willis has the best arm in Mobile, and it's not close. He rifles off medium-range passes, both from the pocket and on the run, with little effort. Willis doesn't have an off-speed pitch, however, and his accuracy was scattershot on Tuesday. Still, some teams are about to have visions of Trey Lance-meets-Josh Allen dancing in their heads. Some Eagle-eyed observers noted Howie Roseman paying particular attention to Willis.
- Colorado State tight end Trey McBride is every darn bit as good as advertised: athletically smooth, with the hands of a wide receiver and the ability to make catches in traffic. He's no Kyle Pitts, but he's going to be a first-round pick.
- Mizzou running back Tyler Badie and Cincinnati running back Jerome Ford were impressive for the National team. Badie is swift and looks like he's going to be a handful as a receiver out of the backfield. He also displayed a little patience as a rusher, ducking behind Minnesota mammoth Daniel Faaelele and just disappearing before reemerging like he had just run through the Chunnel for one big gain. Ford, like Badie, has great burst and good vision, and he displayed a few highlight-stick combo moves. Keep in mind that this was a shells practice; it's hard to evaluate running backs with no live tackling.
- As for Faaelele, he weighed in at 387 pounds on Monday, and no one is wondering where he hides it. Faaelele looks quick-footed for a medium-sized hillock, but he didn't dominate in pit drills. Northern Iowa's Trevor Penning is doing much more to help his stock among offensive linemen this week. Faaelele's size set off the Aaron Gibson alarms in Walkthrough's subconscious: a veteran like Jason Peters can play at around four bills late in his career, but a younger player such as Faaelele won't be able to maintain quickness and stamina if he can't stay on the svelter side of 350.
- South Alabama wide receiver Jalen Tolbert put on a show with several deep catches at his home stadium. Tolbert provided the final highlight of an afternoon with few of them: after Western Kentucky's Bailey Zappe bounced a few intermediate passes over the middle in full-squad sessions, Tolbert tracked a slightly overthrown Zappe pass up the right sideline and adjusted to it for a nifty reception.
- Walkthrough will have more on the quarterbacks later in the week. Based on Tuesday, none of them looks capable of winning an NFL opening day starting job, which is not surprising. Even Zappe, who is so lean that he looks like Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet compared to the others, mixed some wobblers with a few pinpoint passes. No one looks undraftable either. That said, the first day of Senior Bowl practices can be misleading because quarterbacks are throwing to unfamiliar receivers and such.
- Two defenders who dominated in the pit drills: Penn State's Arnold Ebiketie and Oklahoma's Perrion Winfrey.
Nagy on Alabama defensive tackle Phidarian "Phil" Mathis: "To see what this guy's mind is like during pregame, how he's bouncing around, getting his teammates feeding off of him, that will mean something on draft day aside from his talent. If he can affect other people on that [defensive] line, that's a certain position group where if you can get a guy that other people feed off, there's value in that."
Phil Mathis on Alabama running back Brian Robinson: "He's a hard runner, going up against him every day. Hitting B-Rob is like hitting an old-school Cadillac hard body."