He was off the job for three months as the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach, and Frisman Jackson received two high-production players to add to his position group. The special treatment in the NFL Draft did not go unnoticed by linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky.
“Jerry was laughing at me saying I had all these new guys,” Jackson said last weekend after the Steelers added George Pickens and Calvin Austin III. “But I lost some guys in free agency in our bedroom. We just added two pieces to the puzzle and hopefully they are big pieces that can come out and help us win games.
That was the intention when the Steelers used overall pick No. 52 to take Pickens, whose Georgia junior season was limited to four games due to an ACL injury, and pick No. 138 to take Austin, a former track sprinter who became one of the best receivers in Memphis history.
The Steelers had to replenish the large receiving corps when JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud left in free agency. This left Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool as the only returning regulars on the roster.
To Jackson’s benefit, general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin gave him prospects with polar opposite pedigrees. Pickens is 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, and was one of the nation’s most sought-after receivers out of high school. Austin is listed at 5-8, 173 pounds and didn’t receive a purse until halfway through his second redshirt season.
Given their respective sizes, it would make sense for the Steelers to line up Pickens on the outside and Austin to play in the slot. However, this is not a certainty.
“We’re excited to know the things we can expect them to be good at, but also to not have them in a box and be open to being pleasantly surprised at some things they might bring” , said Tomlin. “Pickens is a big guy who has a stop-start little guy. …Calvin is a little guy who’s had a few plays off the court. We’re going to bring those guys in and coach them, and we’re excited about what that potentially brings us.
The task of developing Pickens and Austin was given to Jackson, who was hired when Ike Hilliard’s contract was not renewed. Jackson, a former NFL wide receiver with Cleveland and the New York Jets, will look to build on the experience he gained in six college programs, as well as NFL stops in Tennessee and Carolina.
“The programs that I coached, you had to develop guys,” said Jackson, whose Power 5 programs included Temple, NC State and Baylor. “We couldn’t get the guys 5 stars. It’s in my past. Its important to me. I enjoy seeing a guy as a young pup get into this league or get into college, and you see the development phase. You see the development of the player you think he can be. Its important to me.
Steelers scouts had an asterisk next to Pickens’ name when draft ratings began a year ago. As a sophomore, he had a team-high 36 catches for 513 yards and six touchdowns, but he also tore his anterior cruciate ligament in spring training and faced a long recovery.
“Sometimes players in those situations, they shut it down, get healthy, and get ready for the draft,” Colbert said.
The Steelers were heartened that Pickens took the opposite approach. He returned to play in the final four games of the season for Georgia, helping the Bulldogs’ run to the national championship.
Although Pickens had just five catches for 107 yards and no touchdowns, his desire to return to the field so quickly elevated his stock in the Steelers draft room. Pickens also provided impeccable medical reports at Georgia’s pro day, which Colbert, Tomlin and Jackson attended.
“He did a lot of things that we thought he would have done had he been healthy last season,” Colbert said.
Tomlin released one of his favorite sayings when discussing Pickens’ potential.
“Quite frankly,” he said, “we just think there’s a lot more meat on that bone.”
That goes for Austin, too, who was drafted to run on the track — not catch passes. He used his speed — and toughness — to become a two-year starter and four-year contributor for the Tigers.
Austin concluded his tenure at Memphis with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He had 63 catches for 1,053 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2020 — his first full year on the stock market — and he maintained that consistency by catching 74 passes for 1,149 yards and eight scores in 2021.
Austin finished his college career second in Memphis history with 22 receiving touchdowns, fourth with 2,541 receiving yards, and fifth with 156 receptions. He received a Senior Bowl invite and ran the 40-yard sprint in 4.32 seconds at the NFL Combine.
What caught Jackson’s attention watching the Austin film was that he wasn’t afraid to run through the middle while risking collisions with much bigger defensive players. A game against Temple stood out.
“He was going to get shot, but he holds on and grabs,” Jackson said. “I worked at Temple so I know the type of guy at Temple. There are tough guys at Temple. He was able to hold the catch and make the play for his team. I can see the guy who can get through the middle and who isn’t afraid of “Hey, maybe I should take this shot and arm him with alligator”.
“He comes out and he attacks the football, no matter where the ball is.”
Jackson’s first opportunity to work on the field with one of his receivers, including his prized draft picks, will come later this month when organized team activities begin.
“I can’t wait to get my hands on it and work with these guys,” he said.