Pickens is a raw physical talent with rare pass-rushing traits (specifically his explosiveness & arm length) that was miscast in college as a 2-gapping run-stuffer, but how quickly should we expect him to contribute on a Bears defense that needs a major upgrade at his position?
Let’s talk through his film and find out!
Note: I used Twitter to host the draft film for these since YouTube has been giving us grief lately. No sound is included, but the reps are all worth watching.
Zacch Pickens is the most fun developmental project on the #Bears roster and I can't wait to follow him.— Robert Schmitz (@robertkschmitz) May 11, 2023
Interior defensive lineman with an elite first steps & elite length are rare, but that's what Pickens is. Could be a NIGHTMARE pass rusher.
There's, uh, just one problem... pic.twitter.com/kUqcZ9ALm3
Like my tweet states, when Zacch Pickens is at his best his traits explode off the tape — in the reel above you see...
- Long, noisy arms that help him create leverage, crowd passing lanes, and hurry the QB.
- A quick first step that lets him cross the face of OL when defending the run (imposing more leverage problems on his blockers & occasionally creating the instant-wins you see at the Line of Scrimmage) and lets him get depth in the pocket on his pass rushes.
- The technical ability to win multiple ways as a pass-rusher (long arms, swims, hand-swipes, and more).
- A quality motor in both phases, most notably in the run game — even when he loses a rep initially, he’ll dig deep and find a way back into the play.
All of these traits suggest Pickens has serious potential as a pass rusher, but he also has measurable traits that Rod Marinelli (the grandfather of Flus/Lovie’s 4-3 Tampa-2 defense) looks for in his 3-Technique Defensive linemen — Marinelli pointed to the Broad & Vertical Jumps as “tests that athletes cannot [improve] at in preparation for the Combine,” and Pickens posted an exceptional Broad Jump at the 2023 NFL Combine.
Rod Marinelli (the grandfather of Eberflus’ 4-3 #Bears defense) stated the best predictor of 3T DL success was the Broad Jump.— Robert Schmitz (@robertkschmitz) May 2, 2023
Zacch Pickens not only shares a 95th% broad jump with DeFo Buckner, but also the trademark 85th% arms. Will be fun watching Pickens grow. pic.twitter.com/8gOoZdawTu
I don’t want to set our sights too high, but when I think of an explosive, long-armed 3-Technique in a 4-3 defense my mind can’t stay away from the DeForest Buckner comparison. He and Pickens are totally different levels of prospect considering Pickens’ lack of college production in comparison to Buckner (DeForest was the 7th overall pick in 2016 for a reason!), but Pickens’ combination of length & speed invokes physical comparisons to rare players like Gerald McCoy and Malik McDowell as well.
Speaking purely on Pickens’ potential, Zacch Pickens could become an outright star as a penetrating 1-gap 3-Technique. The word “ceiling” gets overused when talking through draft prospects, but Pickens has the physical traits that can’t be taught, and when they shine on his film, they shine bright.
But before we project his fit in the ‘23 defense, let’s talk through his warts — after all, his ability to improve in his weak areas will be the difference between him starting in 2023 and simply playing a reserve or rotational role.
Pickens has a LONG way to go as a run defender, especially against double-teams -- his pad level ends up too high too often, meaning that if he doesn't win the rep immediately he can rarely fight his way back into the play— Robert Schmitz (@robertkschmitz) May 11, 2023
Poles talked about him adding lean weight -- he needs it pic.twitter.com/EsSOkI17pb
Simply put, Zacch Pickens wasn’t consistent enough at South Carolina when stopping the run, and if you can’t stop the run, you can’t play on 1st down or 2nd down in the NFL. While watching the reel above, you’ll see...
- A high center of gravity that leads to poor pad level, meaning double teams move him out of his gaps with ease.
- Light feet that struggle to anchor when he’s initially driven back, often making bad run reps worse (this is likely a side effect of his quick first step).
- Opposing offenses often target him on short-yardage rush downs (and do so with success).
These issues are major problems that affect Pickens’ down-to-down consistency, which could lead Alan Williams to consider him a “3rd Down Interior Rush Specialist,” which would mean Pickens might get used much more sparingly than you’d expect of Pick #64.
Remember, there’s not always a stoppage in play between 2nd and 3rd down — the entire reason you want “Three-Down Defensive Linemen” is because the offense controls when & how the defense substitutes, meaning that utilizing Pickens as a “3rd down interior rusher” may be harder in practice than it is in theory. If the offense doesn’t want Pickens on the field, they simply won’t substitute.
With that in mind, I imagine Eberflus’ plan for Zacch Pickens is to do exactly what Ryan Poles suggested in the presser following the draft — add “lean weight” to Pickens’ frame in an attempt to improve his run anchor with the goal of becoming more consistent in 1-gap and 1.5-gap assignments.
Consistency will be the key for Pickens. His arm length gives him serious potential as a 1-gap penetrating run defender (as you saw in the “good” reel above), but you’ll struggle throughout a game on defense trading each TFL or run-stuff for two 6-10 yard gashes on the ground.
Keep an eye on Pickens’ run defense in camp and preseason — his progress in that area will likely determine his role throughout 2023.
Zacch Pickens is the Yin to Gervon Dexter’s Yang — Pickens has natural 3-Technique pass rushing traits but needs work as a run defender, while Dexter’s natural power makes him an ideal 1-Technique that can play 3-Technique in a pinch (even if his effectiveness may be a bit limited away from the center).
If each player overcomes their respective hurdles, the Bears may have the talent necessary to run a hybrid front that sees Dexter and Pickens “bump” between 1-Technique and 3-Technique as needed to account for pre-snap offensive motion... but we’ll save that discussion for another article once Pickens proves he’s ready to play all three downs.
Zacch Pickens should be a fun developmental project to follow over the next few years — and one way or another, I can’t wait to see who he becomes.