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Alex Highsmith may have been a surprise pick by the Steelers, but he really wasn’t

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Alex Highsmith, the Steelers third-round pick out of Charlotte on Friday night, may have been a bit of a surprise. But the position he’s expected to fill shouldn’t have been.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 Charlotte at Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m not going to sit here and say that I’m excited about the Steelers selection of Alex Highsmith, the 250-pound edge-rusher from Charlotte, in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft on Friday.

How can I be excited about a player I don’t know or never even heard of? But does that mean I’m disappointed? No, it was a third-round draft choice. Those guys don’t generally move the needle for me—not unless they’re known prospects that slide that far down the board.

Was I surprised by the selection? Yes and no. I was surprised by the name, again, because it was unfamiliar to me. However, I wasn’t surprised by the position. Highsmith may be listed as an edge, but at roughly 250 lbs, he’s not going to be listed as that in Pittsburgh. Nope, he was selected to provide depth at the outside linebacker spot, something you could say ranked at or near the top of the Steelers needs heading into Friday night.

As a walk-on at Charlotte, a school from Conference USA, it’s no secret that Highsmith is a bit raw and a project. But it’s encouraging that he dominated his competition, something teams are looking for with prospects that play in non-power five conferences.

In his final two seasons at Charlotte, Highsmith recorded 40 tackles for loss and 18 sacks—including 21.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks in his senior year.

Those numbers are obviously school records for a 49ers program that is new to FBS football (2013). But they are records nonetheless. And Highsmith did earn First-Team All-Conference honors in both 2018 and 2019, as well as Third-Team All-American honors his final year.

But those are the kinds of accolades that a player like Highsmith better have. The real question is, can he develop into a solid backup outside linebacker that not only provides Pittsburgh with good depth, but who can one day step in and start for a few games or even permanently if and when the team and Bud Dupree part ways?

Let’s be honest, that last part, the part about Dupree, a player whose contract situation and long-term future with the team are currently in limbo, was one of the reasons Highsmith was brought in—it almost had to be.

But, again, he’s raw, and with pass-rushing moves that seem to be predicated more on speed than on technique. That’s where coaching will come into play. That’s where being on the details will matter. Will real development begin right away, or will Highsmith spend his rookie season in street clothes, backing up the backups—Olasunkanmi Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper?

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert did say that 2020 isn’t going to be a “redshirt” year for Highsmith. But that’s really up to the player, isn’t it?

No general manager wants to give his third-round pick a redshirt during his rookie year, but when one was a walk-on at a recently-formed FBS program from Conference USA, sometimes that happens.

The Steelers addressed a major need on Friday with the selection of Alex Highsmith. Now it’s up to them and him to actually fill the need for a legitimate backup and possible future starter at outside linebacker.