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Tracking Translation: George Pickens

George Pickens flashed in preseason and is now starting to bloom on the field. How well has he translated? Dive in with @FFB_Vern to find out.

Despite the Steelers’ struggles, there are signs of better times ahead. One of those signs is George Pickens, who was a late addition to Tracking Translation. During training camp, Pickens was putting together quite the body of evidence to encourage belief in his upside. Some of that early progress may have had to do with Pickens’ perfectionist response to pre-draft criticism. Since Kenny Pickett has stepped in as starting quarterback, can we believe in what we have seen of Pickens?

Translation Focal Points

Pickens has had some good games since Pickett’s ascension to starting quarterback. Since Week 4, Pickens has averaged 7 targets and 5.3 receptions per game for a total of 273 yards (13 yards/reception, 68.25 yards per game) and one touchdown. From a fantasy perspective, that is dependable WR2/3 production (~12.5 fantasy points). This is not eye-popping elite production, but this is a nice floor.

What we ultimately want to know is the following:

  • Is this floor production sustainable?
  • Can we expect additional upside?

To determine these answers, we must look at the tape. However, let’s revisit the criteria we wanted to evaluate to track Picken’s translation:

  • Are his college ball tracking/ball skills translating?
  • Is he reducing the prevalence of body catches?
  • Is his speed a hindrance to separation/upside?
  • Can he beat press coverage?

If all of these questions have positive answers, then we can buy Pickens as a dynasty WR2 with WR1 upside down the road. Otherwise, we may have to pause on solidifying that perspective in our minds or even consider selling on hype.

The Film

The study of his last four games is interesting. The numbers are good, the highlights are eye-catching, and the chemistry between Pickens and Pickett seems apparent. This duo even has one of the top-10 lowest-probability connections on the 2022 season per Next Gen Stats. However, we need to take a deeper look to see if a high opinion is warranted.

Ball Skills/Tracking

With a 75% catch rate and 13 yards per reception, the likelihood is high that Pickens is translating in this area. We have already seen several highlight reel plays, and it appears to be something that Kenny Pickett can trust. He consistently shows an ability to adjust to underthrown balls downfield and win when “covered” 1-on-1.

His ability, shown here, to work through/around a cornerback in his hip pocket, locate the ball, and use excellent body control to make the catch with that level of sideline awareness screams long-term upside. This box should be considered “checked.” Based on all the other targets I watched, we can also check the box related to the reduction of body catches. Pickens is grading as ‘very good’ for me in the areas of hands, body control, ball tracking, adjustment, and catch radius.

Speed and Separation

This is a natural segue destination because we can refer to the clips above. As we can see, the defensive backs are in Pickens’s hip pocket, with very little physical space between them. To confirm what we are seeing, Next Gen Stats has him tied for 94th in separation at 2.7 yards. To be fair, there are other notable names he is tied with, including Ja’Marr Chase and Mike Evans.

This type of separation makes the skills we discussed above critical in his success when targeted. This is especially true since the Steelers are bent on using him on ‘Go’ routes. Over the last four games, he has run the ‘Nine’ route ~24% of the time, and ~23% of his targets came on those routes. If he is manned up, he will have to win the hard way, as we have seen above.

Separation vs. Zone

With that said, his speed isn’t subpar, and we have seen many receivers succeed with that level of speed. Versus Zone defense, we should be comfortable with his skill. Since separation versus Zone is mainly about recognizing the coverage and settling into the soft spot, what we see below provides confidence.

The motion by Claypool before the play is not reciprocated by a defender indicating a Zone defense. Given the posture of the corners and the depth of the two safeties, this is either Cover 2 or Cover 4 (Quarters). Pickens’ route is a 15-yard Dig, which attacks the common soft spot in the 2-deep safety coverage family: the deep middle area. Mitch Trubisky’s eyes coerce the underneath defenders to focus on Claypool, maintaining the cushion in the soft spot.

George Pickens’ contribution to this play comes in two places. First, the hesitation just as he passes the underneath defender causes the deep safety to stop his backpedal. Pickens then presses vertically, leading to the second contribution: the foot fire and shoulder shake to the outside. Watch how the safety starts to close on what he thinks is an out-breaking route. Between Trubisky and Picken’s actions, this soft spot is massive.

This look against what turns out to be a Tampa 2 look (Cover 2 with a defender closing the intermediate middle of the field) shows Pickens’ IQ again. Watch how he stems his route first vertically, then veers to the outside just before the break. Versus Cover 2, outside corners prioritize outside leverage to force deep routes on the boundary to their safety help. They know that receivers with ‘Go’ route assignments must win outside versus Cover 2.

Given all of that context, the stem is perfect to manipulate the cornerback to widen as he opens his hips upfield. This also helps get the focus of the deep safety and the middle field defender off of him and onto Claypool’s Post route up the seam. The break in his Dig route comes as Claypool’s route creates traffic for that mid-field defender. This culminates in a nice catch with potential incoming contact, showing concentration and competitive toughness. These two plays corroborate many others versus Zone and should give us confidence in Pickens’ success in these situations.

Separation vs. Press Man

In that last play, we saw how his stem indicates a potential “Go” route to the cornerback. The film reveals multiple contributing factors in my view. The frequency of Pickens’ ‘Go’ routes was mentioned earlier. Another thing the film revealed is the frequency with which he releases outside on ‘Go’ routes. This last piece is what causes pause for me because I do not believe this consistent action is part of a set up for plays like the one above.

The concern is that Pickens relies on either explosiveness off the ball or a single-move jab step release. While his use of hands appears solid to deal with the jam or other contact, it is not resulting in separation in the intermediate or deep part of the field. The Steelers and Kenny Pickett are fortunate that Pickens has the ball skills highlighted earlier. They apparently trust in his capability there.

This limitation in release moves causes an issue for his total upside. One thought I had while watching the tape is that the OC wants him to do this so that he can be a manipulative chess piece to pair with a shallower, adjacent route. Another thing they do with Pickens a lot is Hitch routes (~16% of routes, targeted on ~28% of hitches). This does pair well strategically with the ‘Go’ routes, especially when he can sell vertical, like in the play below.

The challenge is his release plan with the two options mentioned above; each only has one contingency: win with his hands. Without depth to his toolbox of release moves, Pickens will remain limited versus press coverage, but he could develop this in time. The limitation often results in him being re-routed beyond the red line (imaginary line ~4-5 yards from the sideline), which is a reference point to ensure the passer has space to throw into on the boundary.

Speed isn’t a hindrance in his total separation, but his limited release plan versus press coverage is. Without improvement here, he cannot reach WR1 status.

Conclusion

George Pickens has the statistical production and film evidence to warrant excitement for his upside. With that said, we also know what stands in his way to tier up. Buy or sell is the ultimate question we try to answer here. For managers of Pickens, he is a firm ‘hold’ right now. I know that answer is riding the fence, but there is too little evidence to sell short of a stunning return. Also, there is enough positive to believe there is room between Pickens’ current status and his true ceiling.

We should look at a few recent trades in the DynastyNerds Trade Browser for those thinking about buying before the price becomes too high. As always, we will focus on a few actual trades with the least noise.

If I can buy Pickens for this price, regardless of my competitive position at this point in the season. This is a Superflex trade, so it is possible this could be costing the buyer a competitive quarterback. There is a long history that suggests Geno Smith has a solid chance to ‘come back to earth,’ so this may not be so bad—trading an asset while it’s hot and sowing seeds into the dynasty future.

Selling Hopkins, who appears to be a championship-winning asset, for potential future upside in Pickens…. This could be an easy smash if I am stuck in the middle and have little chance of being competitive come playoff time. However, for competitive folks, this is a little harder to swallow. We should always look to trade aging assets for young ones, but given the current state of Pickens’ game above, it would be tough for me to click ‘Accept’ if I have a solid shot to win the ‘ship without this trade. If you have the depth, why not take a chance to bolster your future?

Next time we will be taking a deep look at Chris Olave, who looks like a legit stud. Until then, join the NerdHerd and use all the tools it offers, including DynastyGM and the Trade Browser, to stay ahead of the game. You can continue to follow me @FFB_Vern on Twitter for other fantasy thoughts and nuggets.

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