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Alex Highsmith’s 2020 season impacted the discussion of the Steelers 2021 first-round draft pick

Some not in tune with the Steelers instantly look at replacing Bud Dupree as a top draft need in 2021.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time to revisit some things that I’ve discussed in the past and apply them to situations going on in the present when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

First, I have often said to beware of some of the national media who aren’t really in tune with what’s going on with the Steelers. While it’s improved as the 2021 NFL draft approaches, there were a good number of mock drafts selecting an edge rusher to the Steelers in the first round. While this is not out of the question, their explanation is what was truly troubling. Not to quote any particular mock draft exactly, the basic gist was the Steelers needed a replacement for the loss of Bud Dupree. What they fail to realize is the Steelers already had a plan which was implemented a year ago.

The other point I want to revisit is how I felt the Steelers had made an excellent choice in selecting Alex Highsmith in the third round of the 2020 NFL draft. While I was unsure of Highsmith before the draft due to him coming out of a smaller program, the fact that Steelers loved him made me love him even more.

But what made the selection such a great idea was the uncertainty of the future of Bud Dupree in Pittsburgh. With Dupree going into a season of playing on the franchise tag, and even though the Steelers had said numerous times that hoped to keep Dupree long term, it was wise to prepare for what ended up being a departure for the 2021 season.

By drafting Alex Highsmith in the third round of the 2020 NFL draft, the Steelers had a player to come in as the rotational outside linebacker, a role filled the previous year by Anthony Chickillo. By having that opportunity, the Steelers were able to get a great gauge on what they had in Highsmith. If the pick worked out great, they did not have to address edge rusher as high in the 2021 draft. If it did not, then the Steelers knew the position would be a high priority the following season.

Not only did Highsmith perform well in the reserve role, he ended up having to start the final five games of the season for an injured Bud Dupree. While this was not the situation the Steelers were hoping for, it did give them an opportunity to assess Highsmith in his rookie season even better.

With Alex Highsmith performing more than adequately in the Steelers defense, despite his rookie status, it has changed the narrative of drafting an edge rusher for 2021. There is no reason to believe that Highsmith won’t perform as well in 2021 as players usually, but not always, see an increase in production in their second season.

As for the draft ahead, it’s not like edge rusher has completely fallen out of consideration for the Steelers. What the Steelers ultimately need at the position for this season is a 2020 Alex Highsmith. If Highsmith is moved into the Dupree role, then the Steelers need someone to fill that role Highsmith held last season.

Had the Steelers not been sure Alex Highsmith was ready to be the starter out outside linebacker, the need to draft an edge rusher would have dominated the Steelers first-round draft pick discussion. If Highsmith was merely nothing more than the rotational reserve player, the Steelers would need to find someone who could be ready to be a starter as soon as possible. In order for that to work out, it likely would have needed to be a first-round draft pick.

With the outlook being Highsmith as the starter, the Steelers can now draft the outside linebacker position at any point in the 2021 NFL draft. If the right player is there in the first round and it’s too much value to pass up, the Steelers could pull the trigger. There is a big difference between “could” and “have to.” Also, if there’s an under-the-radar player they feel they can get later on, it would set up perfectly.

But had Highsmith not performed well in 2020, the Steelers could have been put in a situation to be reaching for whatever edge rusher could be available at the 24th pick. Thanks to Alex Highsmith, the Steelers have a much better situation of being able to draft the best player available with their first draft selection.