PITTSBURGH (AP) — Kenny Pickett and Brock Purdy crossed paths during the run-up to the 2022 NFL draft.
They weren't expected to do the same in the NFL.
The Pittsburgh Steelers made Pickett — a Heisman Trophy finalist during his final season at the University of Pittsburgh — a first-round pick, fully aware of the outsized expectations that would follow him as he moved from one side of the facility the two teams share to the other.
Purdy was an afterthought when the 49ers made him “Mr. Irrelevant” by taking him with the final selection, two days and light years — at least in terms of perception — after Pickett heard his name called. Purdy was a camp arm. A “just in case" for a team that featured Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Less than 18 months later, things have changed considerably.
Purdy begins his second NFL season on Sunday when San Francisco visits Pittsburgh having already been where Pickett and the Steelers desperately want to go.
Pickett showed flashes of being ready to become a franchise cornerstone during a solid if not particularly showy rookie season. Meanwhile, Purdy was authoring one of the league's more unlikely success stories, morphing from seventh-round flier to overnight sensation while helping the 49ers to the NFC championship game.
A busted right elbow ended Purdy's magical run in Philadelphia. It did nothing, however, to slow his momentum. Purdy will run onto the Acrisure Stadium turf as a team captain, heady territory for a player who was inactive for San Francisco's opener a year ago.
“I think they believed in him and felt he was one of the leaders last year," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Not because he’s being some vet and talking to guys a certain way, just because of how he prepares, that they can count on him and how he handled a number of situations when he got in there.”
A seven-game winning streak in which Purdy showed he was far more than simply a game manager will do that.
The goal? To prove that his initial success wasn't a fluke but rather a sign of things to come. Consider Steelers coach Mike Tomlin among the believers in Purdy's magic, even as Pittsburgh's star-laden defense tries to stop him.
“Man the run that they went on a year ago as they found their quarterback in Purdy I thought was really impressive,” Tomlin said.
It's a run Pickett will try to emulate. He steadily improved after being handed the keys a month into his rookie season. The upward trajectory he showed during Pittsburgh's 7-2 run to finish the year only seemed to accelerate during a preseason in which Pickett guided the first-team offense to the end zone every time he was on the field.
The challenge figures to be significantly tougher against a defense that features All-Pro linebacker Fred Werner and star defensive end Nick Bosa, now the highest-paid defender in the league.
“We’re definitely confident and way ahead of where we were a year ago and I think everyone’s buying in and we all understand what we’re trying to do,” Pickett said. “We all love the game plan. We all bought in, so that’s the start and we’re going to go out there and do it.”
The Niners got a big boost defensively when Bosa, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, ended his lengthy contract holdout on Wednesday and returned to the team with a new deal.
Bosa led the NFL with 18 1/2 sacks last season, when he led a defense that allowed the fewest points and yards. With no other established edge rushers on the roster, the 49ers were elated to get him back even if he might not be ready for a full workload Sunday.
“He’s such a huge contributor to what we do as a defense and how we play,” All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams said. “It’s not like anybody else is going down. The Defensive Player of the Year. You miss players like that. I know it’s a ”next-man-up league” but a lot of that goes out the window when you’re talking about a player like Nick.”
The Steelers were methodical — maybe too methodical — on offense a year ago when they had just one offensive touchdown that was longer than 25 yards. They expect that to change in 2023 with Pickett more comfortable in offensive coordinator Matt Canada's system while playing behind an offensive line that figures to be better thanks to the arrival of former Philadelphia Eagles guard Isaac Seumalo, among others.
“Everyone is playing a step faster,” Pickett said. “You hear me talk about playing fast, that’s what it is. Until everyone 100% knows their jobs and are out there playing free (and easy), that’s what we need to get to.”
For all the attention given to Purdy's rise, the 49ers still rely heavily on do-everything running back Christian McCaffrey, who averaged 107 yards of total offense a game after San Francisco acquired him in a trade with Carolina.
Shanahan has spent an entire offseason thinking of new ways to use McCaffrey, who is maybe the most versatile weapon in the NFL.
“We better be really careful about being matched up against him in space,” Tomlin said. “He’s a one-on-one space winner.”
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow in San Francisco contributed to this report.
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