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After passing on Dan Marino 39 years ago, the Steelers made sure Kenny Pickett stayed in Pittsburgh

(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

The Steelers did extensive research on this year's quarterback class, traveling to all the pro days, along with bringing in seven quarterbacks for pre-draft visits. The heir apparent to Ben Roethlisberger was right next store all along, however. The Steelers selected Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett at 20th overall in the 2022 NFL Draft on Thursday night. It marked the first time in a quarter-century that no quarterbacks were drafted in the first 19 picks. The last time was Jim Druckenmiller at No. 26 overall in the 1997 NFL Draft.

“We circled the globe, at least the United States here, the past several months, exploring and researching. It’s funny — we ended up with the guy from next door,” Mike Tomlin said.

In the 1983 NFL Draft, the Steelers made their biggest draft blunder in franchise history by passing on Pitt quarterback Dan Marino, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career. After Terry Bradshaw retired following the 1983 season, it took the Steelers 21 years to find their next franchise quarterback in Roethlisberger.

How much did the Marino story play a factor in the Steelers not making the same mistake with Pickett? Who knows, but I'm sure it was in the back of some Steelers personnel member's minds. Kevin Colbert's legacy as a general manager won't be tarnished if Pickett ends up being a bust, but it certainly wouldn't be a promising end to his career if that comes to fruition. If Pickett ends up being a Pro Bowl and All-Pro quarterback, Colbert looks like a genius then.

This entire quarterback class is really a crapshoot and like Willis, Pickett is a perfect example of a boom-or-bust pick. Willis wasn't even drafted in the first round. Five quarterbacks were drafted in last year's draft, all in the top 15. Pickett was the only quarterback in the first round and was selected at No. 20. That tells you everything you need to know about this year's class.

Many consider Pickett to be the most NFL ready quarterback in this year's class. He played five seasons at Pitt and will turn 24 in June. So, he's mature and should compete right away. That's what the Steelers wanted. They didn't want to wait and develop Willis. Longtime NFL writer Peter King hinted earlier this week that Pickett was the Steelers' "guy" all along. King said that he heard the Steelers think Pickett’s more likely to succeed as a pro than Willis.

“They were very obvious and consistent when you watched the tape,” Tomlin said about Pickett’s anticipation and pro accuracy. “He is 24 years old. He is a mature young man. You do see maturity in his game. All those things put him in position to compete.”

Pickett had a spectacular 2021 season, throwing for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns, along with leading Pitt to the ACC Championship. He also won the Johnny Unitas Award, given annually to the nation’s top upperclassman quarterback, and was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

“Kenny’s just a mature, even-keeled guy,” Colbert said. “He obviously had a great senior year, and it just talks and preaches what you can do if you stay [in school] and develop into a first-round pick. He’s special.”

Many thought either the Panthers or Saints would have selected Pickett, but they bypassed him just like other quarterback-needy teams -- Falcons, Seahawks and Commanders.

“We map it out, we get 20 guys lined up, and you just wait and hope,” Colbert said. “To get that player at 20 was certainly a pleasant surprise.”

Time will tell if Pickett is "special" as Colbert believes. But in the time being, the Steelers believe they got their next franchise quarterback.

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