The Chicago Bears made their mission obvious in the 2023 NFL draft. They wanted to improve in the trenches. That was especially true in the middle of their defenses. When the dust settled, they’d added three defensive tackles to their ranks. One of them was Zacch Pickens out of South Carolina. The athletic lineman turned heads at the Senior Bowl and scouting combine, showcasing his considerable upside and magnetic personality. One issue people had with him was his overall production.
His numbers didn’t reflect his apparent capability. He finished 2022 with only 2.5 sacks and four tackles for a loss. That is hard to understand, given his mixture of quickness, length, and first-step explosion. Some wondered if it had to do with how the South Carolina coaches used him, not allowing more attacks up the field. It was here where Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune may have stumbled onto another explanation. It was provided by Jimmy Lindsey, Pickens’ former defensive line coach. He was asked what his former player’s best game was.
“Kentucky (four tackles, one sack, one pass deflected). That really was the healthiest he was during our first six games.”
From what Lindsey is saying, Pickens was battling injury issues during the season’s first five weeks. It’s reflected in the numbers. He had no sacks and half a tackle for a loss in those five games. Over the final seven, he collected 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss.
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Zacch Pickens is a cautionary tale about the draft.
It’s a reminder that evaluators often don’t have all the details. Sometimes if a player isn’t as productive as expected, it may not be because they stagnated or regressed. There is a chance they were playing hurt. It is a testament to Pickens that he played through whatever the problem was and finished the season strong. It also explains why the Bears felt comfortable taking him at the top of the 3rd round. They felt the healthy version was what they’d be getting once the season began, and they knew he is tough enough to play through pain.
GM Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus see a player that fits their profile and their locker room culture. They think Zacch Pickens has only scratched the surface of what he can be. With the benefit of an NFL training regimen and a defensive scheme that will let him attack, it isn’t crazy to think his production will take a significant leap moving forward.