The Pittsburgh Steelers are absolutely loaded at the outside linebacker position. They have DPOY candidate T.J. Watt on one side and the presently franchise tagged Bud Dupree on the other. They represent arguably the best pass rushing duo in the league, especially at OLB.
Currently the Steelers have inexperienced potential waiting in the wings as depth for their superior starters. The returning backups are Ola Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper, two unproven training camp darlings who have flashed impressive pass rushing abilities of their own, admittedly in a limited sample size.
Last season's main backup at both OLB position, Anthony Chickillo; the same player that unbelievably had been offered and signed a two year contract prior to last season, was released this off season after another year of underwhelming production. The Steelers renowned affection for familiarity and continuity are the only logical explanation for signing Chickillo to that two year contract.
Although Chickillo was a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers for five seasons, I struggle to recall a single impact play he provided during his time on the field. Before certain individuals heads explode, let me specify I am referring to his contributions on defense. He was a quality special teams contributor, and I seem to recall a blocked punt and a fumble recovery or two, but that's about it.
I had high hopes for the young man when he arrived out of Miami. The Steelers brass believed he had been playing out of position at defensive end for the Hurricanes and that he could flourish after dropping some weight and moving to OLB. It made sense to me, and I believed the Steelers knew what they were doing. I even told myself to be patient because of the necessary position change, so I waited. Everyone in Steelers Nation patiently waited for something that never happened.
It has to have happened in five years, right? At some point, he had to have found himself with a favorable matchup that should have allowed him the opportunity to shine, to make a splash play. Isn't that the knock on Adeniyi and Skipper, they make big plays during the preseason, but it's insignificant because it is against third string longshots or future insurance salesmen. The problem is I can't recall Chickillo making a one on one impact play against any opponent, preseason or not.
Chickillo represented a body in a Steelers uniform across the line of scrimmage from the opposition. He allowed the Steelers to have eleven defenders on the field whenever they needed to spell a starter, and nothing more. He absorbed the action, only making a play if the action flowed into his section of the field. Like a unmotivated little leaguer who the coach tries to hide in right field, praying that nobody hits the ball in his direction. Make a few special teams tackles, again only when the action falls into your lap, and keep drawing an NFL paycheck for five years. It's great work if you can get it.
The Steelers drafted Alex Highsmith from UNC Charlotte to fill the void after releasing Chickillo. Nobody knows what type of player that Highsmith will eventually develop into, but I feel certain about one thing. Highsmith is the polar opposite of Chickillo as a player. He is a high octane performer who will impact the play whenever he is on the field. He doesn't absorb the action, he influences the action and creates an impact.
I had a coach who once made this statement about a high energy novice newcomer of a teammate, "He has no idea what he is doing, but he is definitely doing something!" Is that really too much to ask? Maybe you overrun the play, or get caught out of position, but at least everyone can see you are going all out to make a play. Whether it be good or bad, at least you are making some kind of impact.
I wholeheartedly believe that Alex Highsmith will eventually be a starting OLB for the Pittsburgh Steelers and will become a fan favorite right out of the gate due to his all out effort and passion for the game, but only time will tell. I admit I have been wrong before, if only once or twice.
For sake of comparison, consider Indianapolis Colts MLB Darius Leonard. Although they play different positions, Leonard and Highsmith both are small school standouts who blossomed late due to an insane work ethic and the overwhelming internal drive to be a success. I remember many BTSC members basically praying that the Steelers would select Leonard, so much so I tried to learn more about the young man. His intensity was impossible to ignore. The only question was how his impressive abilities would translate to the NFL and the step up in talent. Leonard has more than answered all those questions, and has become arguably the best interior linebacker in the NFL.
Highsmith has many of the same qualities as Darius Leonard. We can only hope that he has anything close to a similar impact. However, I would warn against limiting his potential impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers based solely on his small school career and former walk on status. Many opponents made the same assumptions, and paid the price for that mistake.
Alex Highsmith will make a lasting impression on the Steelers faithful this season. He will make an impact on the field when given the opportunity, whether it be good or bad. His style of play is impossible to ignore.