Can Kenny Pickett, NFL quarterbacks avoid concussions with QB-specific helmet?

The Athletic
June 14, 2023

PITTSBURGH — It didn’t take much to convince Kenny Pickett, and that’s quite unusual, considering the request.

Or maybe he didn’t want it to seem like a big deal considering his recent concussions and the tendency for everything associated with a first-round quarterback — especially in Pittsburgh — to be overblown.

Well, actually, it could be (and likely is) a little bit of both.

“I showed up and it was in my locker,” Pickett said recently about the cutting-edge safety technology he was given a month ago. “I told them, ‘Yes, I will try it. Throw it in there.’”

Pickett was alluding to the latest and best-rated helmet the NFL and NFLPA approved this spring, specifically designed for quarterbacks to help prevent concussions.

Pickett suffered two concussions 56 days apart last fall during his rookie season — costing him nearly two full games and part of another — in a very similar fashion: a whiplash tackle that led to the back of Pickett’s head slamming against the turf.

Both looked innocuous, but both resulted in a concussion diagnosis and valuable. Either might have been prevented by a better helmet — or at least that’s what Pickett is being told by the league.

During spring practices, Pickett switched to the Vicis Zero2 Matrix helmet designed specifically for quarterbacks.

The standard Zero2 Matrix helmet, which is designed to reduce the severity of helmet-to-helmet impacts, received a five-star rating in the Virginia Tech rating system and scored 82 percent better than the average five-star helmet.

The quarterback-specific version (the Zero2 Matrix QB) is designed to reduce the severity of helmet-to-ground impacts, which league data says accounted for approximately half of the quarterback concussions in 2022 — part of an 18 percent rise in concussions last season — including both of Pickett’s. Tests showed more than a 20 percent mitigation of impact for helmet-to-ground hits compared to the standard helmet.

Pickett changed helmets midway through last season after his second concussion, going from the Riddell SpeedFlex — the most popular helmet in the NFL and the same model he wore in college at Pitt — to the Riddell Axiom. Neither is among the top-five helmets in the NFL’s ratings. If he chooses to stick with the Vicis Zero2 Matrix QB model he used in the spring, he would be wearing the top-rated helmet for non-linemen. (Vicis also makes two linemen-specific models, which are the top rated among all helmets.)

“They said that was the best one for quarterbacks, so I said, ‘Fine, give it to me,’” Pickett said.

Pickett didn’t elaborate when pushed on why he is trying out a new helmet, but the reason seems quite obvious: safety.

What makes the Zero2 QB more appealing to Pickett is that it’s fitted specifically for the quarterback’s head. The Matrix system creates a form-fit helmet by offering different interior contours.

The custom-fit helmets take time to make, and Pickett didn’t receive his until late during offseason practices. For the first part of OTAs, he wore a model that was designed to be retrofitted for immediate use. That means tweaking and adding extra support via six adaptable pads — what the company calls “delta pods”— to suit Pickett and prevent the whiplash effect that caused his concussions.

“I trust our guys to put the best helmets in there,” said Pickett, who added he plans to stick with the helmet unless another one proves better. “And if it’s comfortable, it’s fine with me.”

If Pickett ultimately uses it, he will join a short but growing list of QBs donning the first helmet tailor-made for the position. Patrick Mahomes, who has worn a Vicis helmet since he became a full-time starter in 2018, and Russell Wilson, who has worn Vicis since the company’s first model debuted in 2017, are already wearing the Zero2 QB. Others like Tua Tagovailoa — who, like Pickett, suffered multiple concussions last season — Jimmy Garoppolo, Derek Carr and Anthony Richardson have also worn it this offseason.

Keeping Pickett healthy is the organization’s top priority.

“It’s obviously a concern, right?” general manager Oman Kham said during the NFL Scouting combine in late February when asked about Pickett’s concussions. “You take every precaution, you take every step to try and prevent them or minimize.”

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