Even Kenny Pickett understands what a big August meant for him and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It is preseason, man,” Pickett said, according to The Athletic. “Nothing counts, so it is kind of easy to remain motivated because we haven’t done anything yet. Everybody understands that.”
Still, if the NFL is going to play preseason games, what we see has to mean something once in a while. And what we saw from the Steelers and Pickett was really good.
If there was a team to crown as preseason champions — thankfully there’s not, and hopefully the NFL doesn’t get any ideas — it was the Steelers. They went 3-0, and while preseason records are really meaningless (don’t tell that to John Harbaugh), Pittsburgh passed the eye test. Pickett played five possessions and they resulted in five touchdowns. While a lot of the damage was done against backups, the Steelers did lead the Buffalo Bills’ starters 14-0 after one quarter, and the Bills are a Super Bowl contender. Pickett, who had some moments last season as a rookie but mostly struggled, looked like a totally different player. He didn’t have many passing attempts this preseason, but he had a few great throws.
Maybe, just maybe, what we saw in August matters a little bit. And if it does, it says something about the Steelers and why they’re never bad.
A lot has been made about head coach Mike Tomlin never posting a losing record. Tomlin is a heck of a coach, but his streak also speaks to the consistency of the Steelers. If Pickett hits — and we’re a long way from knowing that outcome — then the Steelers are going to have no dip. Most other teams go through it. But Pittsburgh has kept the roster so strong, with a fantastic defense and a young group of skill-position players that includes Diontae Johnson (acquired with the draft pick Pittsburgh got when it traded away Antonio Brown, by the way), Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens, that a quarterback like Pickett could step in and have success right away.
Pickett wasn’t a can’t-miss prospect. He went with the 20th overall draft pick and some wondered if he had the upside to justify it. On many other teams, maybe it would have been a waste. But Pittsburgh has such a strong infrastructure, it was possible to develop Pickett and do so quickly. The same thing happened with Ben Roethlisberger, who was the third quarterback in his draft class and went 11th overall. Roethlisberger was picked right after Reggie Williams and Dunta Robinson, who you don’t remember. But he was a hit right away.
If Pickett’s August is the first sign of things to come, it shouldn’t be that surprising. The Steelers foster success for young players. That’s why they’re always good. We’ll find out soon if what we saw in the preseason was worth paying attention to.
Here are the power rankings as we head into the 2023 NFL season. You can read our in-depth preview on each team by clicking the team name (and the ranking from “last week” refers to our pre-preseason power rankings):
32. Arizona Cardinals (Last Week: 32)
The Cardinals probably should be projected to have the worst offense and worst defense in the NFL. Maybe the offense gets better when Kyler Murray returns but there’s no timetable for that. Until Murray is back, it’s going to be Clayton Tune or Joshua Dobbs at quarterback. Maybe the Cardinals are tanking, maybe they’re not, but if a team was to tank for the No. 1 draft pick this is what it would look like.
31. Houston Texans (LW: 31)
Dameon Pierce played almost every down with the starters in preseason. He won’t log near a 100% snap count, but he is going to be the centerpiece of Houston’s offense and he has the talent to have a huge year. Hopefully he’s your RB2 on your fantasy football team.
30. Los Angeles Rams (LW: 28)
Preseason doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t matter for the Rams, but losing 41-0 to the Broncos? That hints at how bad the Rams might be. At very least, their depth is nonexistent and now a top-heavy team can’t be sure when Cooper Kupp will play due to a hamstring injury. It could get really bad.
29. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 26)
The Giants came to an agreement with Saquon Barkley. The Raiders and Josh Jacobs made peace. The Colts have blown apart their relationship with Jonathan Taylor, didn’t trade him and stuck him on the PUP list for at least four weeks. It was a little different for Taylor, who is on his rookie deal and not the franchise tag, but it’s still stunning how team owner Jim Irsay has handled the entire situation.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 27)
Picking Baker Mayfield was the right call, and Kyle Trask becomes yet another absolutely wasted non-first round pick at quarterback. Mayfield had a good preseason and while that might not matter much, perhaps he can keep the Buccaneers’ offense afloat. Tampa Bay still has some talented players around the quarterback position.
27. Chicago Bears (LW: 30)
D.J. Moore looked very good in the preseason, as did Khalil Herbert. The Bears offense has the chance to be pretty good but that depends on Justin Fields. Packers-Bears might be the most fascinating Week 1 game.
26. Las Vegas Raiders (LW: 24)
Aidan O’Connell, a fourth-round rookie quarterback, was a preseason standout. It’s wise to pump the brakes a bit until we see O’Connell play well against defenses that have starters and use real game plans, but what he did was an impressive first step. Maybe he can be the rare quarterback outside of the first round to actually hit.
25. Carolina Panthers (LW: 23)
Receiver Jonathan Mingo is going to be a draft steal for the Panthers. The early second-round pick has the size-speed combo to make an immediate impact. It wouldn’t surprise me if he leads the Panthers’ unimpressive receiver room by the end of his rookie season.
24. Denver Broncos (LW: 22)
We don’t know the answer to whether Russell Wilson is back after the preseason. The Broncos’ starting offense was up and down in its preseason reps. It doesn’t help that Tim Patrick is out for the season and Jerry Jeudy is already dealing with a hamstring injury. Denver is a mystery heading into Week 1.
23. Washington Commanders (LW: 25)
The Commanders were right to give Sam Howell a shot, and the early returns are good. What if the draft projections before his final college season, when he was expected by some to be a top-five pick, were a better barometer than his depressed stock after a so-so final season at North Carolina? At very least, the Commanders should be excited to see how the story unfolds.
22. Tennessee Titans (LW: 29)
All the camp reports on Treylon Burks were good, until he sprained his LCL in his knee. But Burks returned to practice last week and it doesn’t seem like it will be a long-term issue. The Titans need Burks to be a playmaker in his second season.
21. Atlanta Falcons (LW: 21)
We didn’t see much of the Falcons in preseason, but enough to know Bijan Robinson looks as good as advertised and that Desmond Ridder still needs to be a little sharper. The Falcons are going to be fun and if everything comes together — Kyle Pitts is healthy, Ridder is adequate, the defense has improved — they could be a playoff team in a weak NFC.
20. New England Patriots (LW: 19)
Ezekiel Elliott was a fine addition. He was overpaid and probably overused with the Cowboys, but he’s not a terrible back in a certain role. I don’t buy for a moment Elliott will cut too far into Rhamondre Stevenson’s workload that much. Almost all backs are timeshare backs, and Stevenson was never going to get 90% of the work. He’ll have a big year, with Elliott playing a nice supporting role.
19. New York Giants (LW: 18)
Darren Waller is going to get a lot of targets. We could see that in his brief preseason playing time. There’s a concern about injury and him fading late in the season at age 30. But as long as Waller is healthy, he should easily lead the Giants in receptions.
18. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 17)
T.J. Hockenson got a new extension, and the Vikings probably overpaid. Hockenson got a four-year, $68.5 million contract. Hockenson is good but he’s been a tier below the truly elite. But Hockenson had leverage. The Vikings acquired him (and some mid-round picks) last season in a trade for a second- and third-round pick. Minnesota wasn’t going to let Hockenson walk after giving that up. Also, Hockenson was reportedly staging a “hold in,” not practicing due to back issues and an ear infection that everyone knew were probably related to the contract. That’s how you end up with a contract that resets the market at your position.
17. New Orleans Saints (LW: 16)
Derek Carr looked sharp in the preseason. Michael Thomas is still healthy. Alvin Kamara’s three-game suspension wasn’t close to as bad as it could have been. Juwan Johnson looks like a breakout tight end. And Chris Olave is going to be very good. This Saints offense is underrated going into the season.
16. Cleveland Browns (LW: 14)
It would be strange for a quarterback as good as Deshaun Watson was with Houston to simply fall off. But Watson has had a strange path the past two seasons, mostly of his own doing. The reports that Watson didn’t look great in camp make the Browns a total wild card heading into the season. If Watson is right, the Browns can win the division. If he never regains his old form, Cleveland is stuck with a $230 million lemon.
15. Green Bay Packers (LW: 20)
It’s probably confirmation bias, but I loved what I saw out of the Packers in the preseason. In particular, Jordan Love looked like he has made a big step. Whenever I was asked this offseason which team I thought would exceed expectations most, my answer was the Packers. Nothing I saw in August lessened my enthusiasm.
14. Los Angeles Chargers (LW: 13)
The reports on first-round receiver Quentin Johnston weren’t great. It also wasn’t great that he played a lot in the preseason while Los Angeles’ starters sat. Josh Palmer didn’t play at all in the preseason, indicating Johnston hasn’t passed him on the depth chart. There’s still plenty of time for Johnston to get involved, but it might be slow at the beginning.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 15)
Another key for the Steelers is T.J. Watt is healthy. After Watt came back from injury last season, the Steelers led the NFL in yards allowed per game. Pair that defense with an up-and-coming offense, and there’s plenty of reason for Steelers optimism this season.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars (LW: 12)
Calvin Ridley is going to be fantastic this season. He’s not completely without risk after not playing much the past two seasons, but he and Trevor Lawrence were already connecting in the preseason. Lawrence is going to feed his new WR1 all season.
11. Seattle Seahawks (LW: 11)
Receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba is back to practice from a wrist injury sooner than expected, but it was still a setback for the rookie. It’s fair to anticipate a bit of a slow start for him. But once JSN is up to full speed, the Seahawks offense is going to be one of the NFL’s best.
10. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 10)
Jadeveon Clowney was a late signing and while he’s a big name as a former No. 1 overall draft pick, don’t overstate his potential impact. He’ll be a good role player. He helps because the Ravens were thin at outside linebacker, a possible problem on an otherwise solid roster.
9. Miami Dolphins (LW: 9)
The Dolphins’ reported pursuit of Dalvin Cook and Jonathan Taylor speaks to their weakness at running back. Jeff Wilson Jr. going to injured reserve certainly doesn’t help. Raheem Mostert could end up being just fine, but it seems like the Dolphins aren’t done shopping.
8. New York Jets (LW: 8)
The signing of Dalvin Cook probably said more about Breece Hall’s return from ACL surgery than anything else. The Jets chased multiple running backs before finally landing Cook. Would they have been so aggressive to get another running back if they assumed Hall could get back to normal RB1 duties by October, or even November? Probably not. Maybe Hall is dominant late in the season, but the Jets paying Cook $7 million this season might be telling.
7. Detroit Lions (LW: 7)
I’m interested to see how rookie defensive back Brian Branch fits in the defense. There were good camp reports about him and he showed out in the preseason. We know the second-round pick can hit. He can add a much-needed element to the Lions’ defense, which needs to improve if the team wants to win the NFC North.
6. Dallas Cowboys (LW: 6)
The Cowboys’ No. 2 running back spot is still a concern. Rico Dowdle was Tony Pollard’s primary backup in the preseason, but he has never played in a regular-season game. Rookie Deuce Vaughn had some nice plays in preseason, and while he’s exciting it’s hard to see him being an every-down back if Pollard misses time. Dallas could still be checking out veteran free-agent depth as the season gets going.
5. San Francisco 49ers (LW: 5)
The 49ers will escape a lot of criticism for the Trey Lance trade because they’ve built such a good roster despite one of the worst trade-ups in NFL history. They wasted three first-round draft picks and a third on a quarterback who didn’t really fit Kyle Shanahan’s offense and got only four starts. It was an organizational failure. Maybe wasting those picks will bite the Niners, but it doesn’t look that way yet.
4. Buffalo Bills (LW: 4)
Von Miller will miss at least the first four weeks of the season, and that’s fine. The Bills will be smart with Miller, making sure he’s healthy and able to be a factor late in the season. The defense missed Miller last season after he tore his ACL.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (LW: 3)
Joe Burrow’s calf injury isn’t a big deal anymore, and that’s a big key for the Bengals. Their Week 1 game at the Browns will set the early tone for the AFC North race this season.
2. Philadelphia Eagles (LW: 2)
We’re all waiting to see what the Eagles’ running back plan is, mostly for fantasy football purposes. D’Andre Swift appears to be the early leader over Rashaad Penny and Kenneth Gainwell. Swift couldn’t earn the trust of the Lions’ coaches, and he couldn’t stay healthy either, but running behind Philadelphia’s line could lead to a major breakout.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 1)
Is it good or bad that the Chiefs have a ton of wide receiver options but no true No. 1? Kadarius Toney looks like he might play Week 1 (though we shouldn’t assume he’ll be good to go all season because it’s always something with Toney), Rashee Rice had some promising preseason moments, Marquez Valdes-Scantling is capable of big plays but not much else, and Skyy Moore still needs to prove himself after a disappointing rookie season. Patrick Mahomes has a lot of intriguing receivers to work with, and we’ll see if he finds one he really likes.