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NFL Draft

Is Alex Highsmith Ready For Bigger Role?

  • The Draft Network
  • December 3, 2020
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When the Pittsburgh Steelers grabbed Alex Highsmith in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, they made him one of the highest-drafted Shrine Bowl prospects of recent seasons. As Pittsburgh’s second draft pick after breakout wide receiver Chase Claypool, it was clear the Steelers thought highly of Highsmith, and were willing to make the investment in him as more than a subpackage player: He was the heir apparent to Bud Dupree, currently playing on the franchise tag and likely to hit free agency in 2021. 

Well, that passing of the mantle has come earlier than expected for Pittsburgh’s vaunted defense. In the peculiar Wednesday sideshow the Steelers played against the Baltimore Ravens, Dupree exited the game with five minutes left and a 12-point lead. He had torn his ACL, and is now unavailable for the rest of the season.

The Steelers’ defense has already had to swallow one blow to its vaunted depth chart: second-year stud off-ball linebacker Devin Bush also tore his ACL earlier in October. Bush was replaced by a young player in third-year UDFA Robert Spillane, who has exceeded expectations in the huge shoes he currently fills. Now, the onus is on Highsmith to do the same with Dupree, a critical part of the Steelers’ ferocious pass rush and aggressive, high-speed play style.

Is Highsmith up for the task? Both his 2019 profile and 2020 work are encouraging signs. While he was drafted to be a Year 2 starter, Highsmith’s work ethic was the driving force behind his ascension. Three years after walking on to the Charlotte program, Highsmith would set the single-season 49ers record for sacks at 17.5 and receive a first-team Conference-USA acknowledgment. He filled out a smaller frame to hit the benchmark for NFL size and developed a varied pass-rush technique to trounce college tackles. 

With all that work, Highsmith was a Day 2 pick and Year 1 subpackage player because of the development still required. Here’s Kyle Crabbs’ summary on Highsmith from the 2020 Draft, before he was selected by Pittsburgh:

Alex Highsmith projects as a developmental starter at the pro level. He's got the needed explosiveness, short area agility and motor — pairing it with promising flashes of hand usage to play off of contact and win off the edge as a pass rusher. There's plenty of quickness to his game — can Highsmith learn to consistently stack up the point of attack? He's probably best suited to play 3-4 OLB in the NFL to allow him wide angles to extend and stack up blockers against the run. 

This fit and projection has come true in Highsmith’s few snaps thus far for the Steelers. With just 128 snaps on the season, it took a few weeks for Highsmith to establish himself as the EDGE3 over Ola Adeniyi, but by Week 8, Highsmith was taking around 30% of the snaps on any given week. Against teams like the Tennessee Titans and the Ravens with their heavy personnel sets, Highsmith was brought onto the field in three-EDGE packages with Dupree and T.J. Watt, and here he used those wide angles from outside alignments to provide staunch run support.

Because the Steelers have had Dupree and Watt available, Highsmith has been used often as a dropper in zone coverage when on the field, as the pass-rush reps go to the more polished veterans. Highsmith has rushed on 75% of the passing downs he’s played, while Dupree and Watt have rushed on 92% and 89%, respectively. Highsmith has shown a solid penchant for zone drops—something he was rarely asked to do at Charlotte—including this critical interception against the Ravens in their first meeting.

Of course, what really matters for the budding outside linebacker isn’t run defense and zone drops—though those quality plays will help keep him afloat. What the Steelers need from Highsmith is an immediate impact in the pass rush. Highsmith has four pressures and a sack this season on his 54 pass-rushing reps, good for a Pass Rush Productivity of 4.6, as measured by PFF. 

That number would be right around average for league EDGEs, but it is a far cry from Dupree’s production—he’s been just outside the top 20 of EDGEs by PRP this season, and Watt’s second only to Joey Bosa.

Highsmith hasn’t really been tested at all as a pass-rusher. His pressures are mostly wide rushes around the corner that force the quarterback up in the pocket, and his sack was a quality effort play against Cameron Erving.

The hope here is that the quickness, hand strength, and recognition that he’s demonstrated as a run defender will translate on the arc, as they largely did in college for Highsmith. It’s an accelerated timeline, certainly, but Highsmith has the advantage of receiving less attention, as teams dedicate themselves even further to slowing down Watt and the Steelers’ stable of effective interior rushers. He also has the fresh legs of a rookie off the bench against tackles who have endured three months of snaps—and quickness has always been his game.

Expectations should remain low for Highsmith’s box score stats, but the Steelers don’t need him to dominate one-on-one and produce sacks—they got great sack production from Dupree, but that’s a big ask for a third-round rookie. If Highsmith can play with Dupree’s speed and motor—two of his best strengths coming out—then the havoc he’ll create in the backfield will be to the advantage of the Steelers’ more polished and productive rushers. It’s a big mantle that Highsmith now wears, but if there’s a coaching staff and front office that deserves faith for installing a defensive rookie on short notice, it’s Pittsburgh. Highsmith’s arc is perhaps the biggest storyline for the Steelers defense as they steel themselves for a Super Bowl run.

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