May 30, 2024
Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett was the first quarterback taken in the 2022 draft and Brock Purdy was the last.

Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason are of the belief that Brock Purdy can take the extra step and lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2023.

But Purdy and his surgically repaired right elbow will have a big test on Sept. 10 when the 49ers visit the Pittsburgh Steelers for their NFL season opener.

Purdy’s rise was one of the NFL’s biggest storylines last season as he went from the final pick in the NFL Draft – seventh round, No. 262 overall – to a surprise star over the last six regular season games and two playoff games before being injured against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The out-of-nowhere tale helped to obscure the performance of the first of nine quarterbacks taken in the draft. Kenny Pickett was taken No. 20 in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, went 7-5 as a starter and by most accounts has blossomed in the leadup to Year 2 as the successor to Ben Roethlisberger.

Pickett, who also went to college at Pittsburgh, passed for 2,404 yards, completing 245 of 389 passes with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions.

When it was all over, Purdy finished third in the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year voting and Pickett was sixth.

During a CBS teleconference advancing the start of the NFL season, Simms recalled first hearing about Purdy’s progress via 49ers radio analyst Tim Ryan.

“I’ll never forget last year I heard him talk and he said, ‘If Brock Purdy was 6-foot-4 he would have been a first-round draft pick,’ ” Simms said.

Part of Ryan’s stock in trade is being relentlessly positive when it comes to the 49ers, so Simms was dubious.

“I thought, ‘Well, that’s an overstatement — big time,’ ” Simms said.

Then came the regular season, with Purdy stepping in as the starter on Dec. 4 when Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot early against Miami. The 49ers won 33-17, with Simms and everyone else starting to realize Purdy wasn’t your typical “Mr. Irrelevant.”

“(Tim) saw him every day, and (as) I was I watched him play, I think we all began to see it,” Simms said.

During a call that went on for more than an hour, Simms, Esiason and fellow analysts Nate Burleson and J.J. Watt fielded questions and spoke of premium talent quarterbacks such as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts. The trade of Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets was a big topic.

But when questioned about the 49ers, Simms and Esiason felt he had what it took to get his team at least a step further than a year ago when they lost in the NFC Championship Game after Purdy departed with torn UCL in his throwing elbow.

Purdy finished the regular season completing 67.1 (114 for 170) for 1,374 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. From the Dolphins game through the end of the regular season, the 49ers averaged 33.5 points per game.

Former 49ers quarterback Steve Young compared the way Purdy handles himself to “The Force”, and Simms said Purdy’s physical skills are underrated in large part because he was the 262nd player selected in the draft.

Purdy came off the bench and led the 49ers past Miami. Beat Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his first home start. Led the 49ers to a division title with a broken rib in Seattle. Beat the Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs.

“Gets rid of the football. Sneaky good athlete,” Simms said. “Throws it, he’s accurate, spins it, easy to catch. I think there’s a lot to like about Brock.”

Esiason, another CBS analyst on the call, chuckled on screen when Purdy’s draft status was mentioned because there was so much actual game-day evidence over the last six games of the regular season as well as two playoff games.

Trey Lance, after all, was the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft and is no longer on the roster, having been shipped to Dallas for a fourth-round draft pick.

“I would say they’re going to be a team that’s going to be right there with the Philadelphia Eagles,” Esiason said. “And I think Brock Purdy is good enough to get them all the way to the Super Bowl. There’s no question about that.

“We saw that last year and I would say the expectations for the 49ers are right where they should be. The fact that they traded Trey Lance tells you all you need to know about Brock Purdy.”

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) won seven of 12 starts last season and had a perfect preseason. A.P. Photo

The merits of preseason football can be debated, but Pickett, at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds was as perfect this August as the Steelers’ 3-0 record.

In five drives over three games, Pickett was 13 of 15 for 199 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Steelers scored a touchdown on all five drives and Pickett’s passer rating was 158.3 – the highest possible score in the NFL rating system.

Former Steelers coach and CBS analyst Bill Cowher was impressed.

“I like the fact that they put him back under center,” Cowher said. “With Najee Harris and the downhill running, it can create play-action. I think they’ve done a really good job grading their offensive line. They’ve got depth, size and quality.

“I think there’s a very good feeling right now in Pittsburgh. The preseason went very well for him, and the regular season starts with the San Francisco 49ers, but they may not have Nick Bosa.”

Simms said the preseason games showed considerable progress and development.

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“I know it’s preseason, I don’t care. His movement, his confidence in himself, the offense, I love what they were doing,” Simms said. “I think they’re going to add on to what they did last year. His decision-making has been terrific. And I think the other thing that goes unnoticed about him is he can move around to throw the ball and pick up runs when he has to too. Very impressed with Kenny Pickett last year, and I think the start of this year the Steelers are going to be pretty tough.”

Esiason said Pickett’s decision-making and accuracy appeared improved in the preseason and believes the second-year quarterback, like Purdy, has a potentially strong supporting cast.

“Remember, they’re going to have a top-five defense, and a top-five running game, and that’s going to take a lot of pressure off of him,” Esiason said.