The recent influx of wide receiver talent via the NFL draft is a great testament to the direction of the sport. There’s a lot of speed, space, and skill on the perimeter and in the slot of these college offenses, and oftentimes that gets coveted in the NFL draft process, too. Consider the last two years’ top draft choices at the position:
- Ja’Marr Chase, LSU
- Jaylen Waddle, Alabama
- DeVonta Smith, Alabama
- Henry Ruggs III, Alabama
- Jerry Jeudy, Alabama
- CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
These are just the names at the top of draft order and don’t include 2020 standout Justin Jefferson or any number of values on Day 2. These trios were all drafted within the first 17 selections of their respective drafts and represent the first instance of back-to-back seasons of three top-20 picks at wide receiver since 2014-2015. Those groups?
- Amari Cooper, Alabama
- Kevin White, West Virginia
- DeVante Parker, Louisville
- Sammy Watkins, Clemson
- Mike Evans, Texas A&M
- Odell Beckham Jr., LSU
Needless to say, it’s been a while. But this doesn’t feel like the year to make it three straight seasons in a row with three-plus receivers in the top 20. (The last time that happened, by the way, was 2003-2005 and highlighted by Andre Johnson (2003), Larry Fitzgerald (2004) and, uh, Braylon Edwards (2005) as the top talents from each set of top-20 picks). There’s some love for the Ohio State duo of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson this summer, particularly for Olave among our group here at TDN. Alabama’s John Metchie III has some fans within the TDN Scouting Department as well. Perhaps Purdue’s David Bell can make a leap—or maybe we may see a perceived mid-round receiver make a leap—but the situation looks dire relative to the last two seasons for 2022.
This brings us to Georgia wide receiver George Pickens.
Pickens is, for my money, the most physically talented wide receiver eligible for the 2022 NFL Draft. He’s got size, ball skills, separation ability, contested-catch ability, and tremendous potential to continue to further build out his game as a true volume receiver at the NFL level. With the quarterback play he’s had thus far at Georgia, it is fair to say he’ll be a more productive pro than college receiver, too.
Great! So what’s the catch?
I’m glad you asked. He tore his ACL at spring practice in March. So there you have it. There’s the catch. But this also isn’t a cut-and-dry forecast for Pickens, especially on the heels of a COVID-19-impacted college football season in 2020 that saw a number of top talents opt out of the season and still get their names called early on. Chase, picked No. 5? Didn’t play. Offensive tackle Penei Sewell, picked at No. 7? Didn’t play. Micah Parsons at No. 12 and Rashawn Slater at No. 13? Neither played. A quarter of the first half of the first round was composed of players who didn’t play a snap during the 2020 season.
Reports indicate that Pickens has been rehabbing since surgery and appears to be ahead of schedule and Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart didn’t rule out a 2021 return on the heels of the injury.
“Obviously, I think there’s a chance (Pickens) is back in ‘21,” said Smart. “We’ve had kids that have ACL injuries, I liken it to Divaad (Wilson). Divadd (who also suffered an ACL tear) got his when he first got here on the third day of spring practice.
“George knows most of the offense, and he’s played more, and he’s older...we’re not concerned with that right now. What we’re concerned with is a great surgery and a great rehab, he has a long career ahead of him.”
But given the dynamics of the 2022 wide receiver class, his clear and obvious physical gifts, and some of the limitations we’ve seen in Smart’s offense over the last few years, our group posed a simple question:
Would coming back early from an ACL tear and risk re-injury be more beneficial to Pickens than opting to commit his time this fall to ensure a clean rehab process and then enrolling into the 2022 NFL Draft without having played this upcoming season?
There are, of course, other alternatives. Pickens could opt to return to school for the 2022 college season and potentially leave for the NFL draft’s 2023 edition. But if Pickens’ heart is set on being a pro in 2022, he must weigh out his options here.
That’s a decision I don’t envy having to make. Because while Pickens is superbly talented, he’s not yet a finished product as a player and he hasn’t taken the kind of jump you’d usually want to see from a receiver before considering him as a top-20 talent. And yes, he’d likely be applauded for his work ethic to rehab and get into a place to take the field again this fall for Georgia. But at what cost? Because in a thin receiver market, at the top of the first round, Pickens’ physical skills already slot him near the top of raw physical talents eligible and the first two wide receivers drafted in the 2021 draft played in a combined six games (although Waddle played fully healthy in only four of them and only returned the opening kickoff in his fifth game of the year). And if Pickens were to push to return and ultimately suffer a setback, the damages could be equally or even more detrimental to his resume than the benefit of pushing to play.
Pickens will have to weigh the cost for himself (if he’s mentally committed to turning pro after the season). If the rewards of competing for a potential WR1 title outweigh the risks of a setback and falling further into the pack of mid-round receivers, then push onward and upward in a bid to return. Many in the media have soft-circled the Florida game on Oct. 30 as a potential return date, which would give Pickens approximately eight months of rehab before a return to the field. That leaves him with Florida, Missouri, Tennessee, Charleston Southern, and Georgia Tech as showcase games, plus any additional postseason and conference championship matchups.
Perhaps Pickens could let the start of the season steer his path? Georgia plays Clemson to open the season and has a big road trip to Auburn on Oct. 9. The College Football Playoff may be on the road to expansion, but there will still be just four teams that make the dance this season. If Georgia catches a few losses early in the year, maybe it serves as motivation for Pickens to transition out of rehab and into early training for the draft process?
There’s a lot of layers at play here for one of the 2022 NFL Draft’s most physically gifted receiving prospects. And as time passes, some of these layers will whittle away and help find clarity on what is best for Pickens’ long-term future. Because as Coach Smart said: he’s got a long career ahead of him.