March 24th, 2021, was a dark day for receiver George Pickens.
On that day, during his practice session with the Georgia Bulldogs, Pickens sustained a torn ACL. Generally, with this type of injury, the timetable for return is long and the process of full recovery is arduous, to say the least.
Pickens' mindset following this grim event was encapsulated in a one-word post on his Instagram page, "Bye." Perhaps at that moment, he was not only saying goodbye to his Bulldogs teammates. Rather, he may have been biding farewell to his once promising football career, a dream that started at a young age.
Yet, there was a silver lining to this. The MRI showed no additional structural damage. In other words, Pickens' window of opportunity to make a comeback was still open. No one knew, however, that it would lead him to a National Championship.
In his freshman year, Pickens was a sensation. His highlight-worthy catches and playmaking ability would make him one of the most promising players in the nation. He would finish the season with 49 catches for 727 yards and a team high of eight touchdown receptions. For his performance that season, he earned a spot on the Freshman All-SEC Team.
In his sophomore year, a year that was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pickens would play in eight games and register 36 catches for 513 yards with six touchdowns. His most notable performance that season came in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, where he finished with seven receptions for 135 yards. In his junior season, Pickens returned from a serious knee injury to help his Bulldogs to a National Championship win. In just four games, he would register 107 receiving yards. In the National Championship game, Pickens would make a key 52-yard reception that would spark their offensive against Alabama.
In essence, Pickens has everything a team looks for in a playmaking receiver: size, speed, athleticism, and toughness. There are few receivers in this year's Draft class with the ability to make the type of plays Pickens made during his tenure with the Bulldogs. With the loss of both receivers, Juju Smith-Schuster and James Washington, this offseason, Pickens adds a dynamic, playmaking dimension to the group currently on the roster.
Elite Ball Skills
There is no question that this represents his strongest competency as a receiver. Pickens possesses an excellent catch radius and the ability to make contested catches with a high degree of difficulty. What has defined Pickens in this regard is his body control. On several occasions, he showed the ability to adjust throws that were overthrown or underthrown and make incredible catches. In general, these aspects are best displayed on 50/50 balls, where he is able to take advantage of his height and length.
The catch seen in this sequence against Missouri speaks for itself. The overall play is slightly skewed because of the camera delay, but the end result was a touchdown. When viewed on the replay, Pickens is covered by two Missouri defensive backs. At one point, he's held by one of them, resulting in a flag on the play. When it seemed that Pickens was taken out of the play, he was able to adjust his body and make the catch with two feet inbounds; an incredible effort results in a touchdown. These types of catches are what made Pickens a household name in college football.
Yards After Catch
As a receiver who specializes in vertical routes, Pickens has struggled to make plays on shorter or intermediate routes. In the instances when he has been successful in doing so, he is adept at gaining substantial yards after the catch. One of his underrated qualities is his ability to use his speed to get the separation needed to make these types of plays.
In this example, Pickens is positioned at the 'z' spot, rather than his usual position on the outside. When the ball is snapped, Pickens does a good job of attacking the Baylor defensive back's outside leverage, gaining the separation necessary to come back and make the reception. Once he completes the catch, he displays his elusiveness, making several Baylor defenders miss, and gaining a hard-earned first down in the process. Running these types of routes is not his specialty, but he is talented enough to be used occasionally in this manner.
Pickens plays with a physical edge which he seemingly enjoys. Though he may not have the body type to suggest it, he has the ability to physically overwhelm opposing defenders when they least expect it. As much as he takes pride in being a playmaking receiver, he takes as much pride in making his presence felt on blocking assignments.
One thing to note in this example from 2019 against Auburn is how Pickens uses the element of deception as a setup for this block. With his jab step release, Pickens simulates the idea of a route. Before the Auburn cornerback could even get a jam at the line of scrimmage, Pickens engages and takes him completely off his feet. This was one of his trademark blocks that trended during the National Championship Semi-Finals, when he manhandled former Michigan defensive back and Cincinnati Bengals first round pick, Daxton Hill.
It is easy to pigeonhole Pickens as one type of player, but the truth is that his vast number of skills makes him difficult to define. What is certain is that the Pittsburgh Steelers got the type of receiver who can affect a game in a multitude of ways. No matter which quarterback settles in as the starter, one should not be surprised if Pickens quickly becomes their favorites target.