Kevin Colbert, the now-former Steelers general manager, said recently that the expectations for the players selected in the first three rounds of the annual NFL Draft are for them to become starters—the sooner the better, I would imagine.
Alex Highsmith, a third-round pick out of Charlotte in the 2020 NFL Draft, already met that expectation when he became a starting outside linebacker last training camp following the free-agent departure of Bud Dupree the previous spring.
Actually, Highsmith, who became a starter on merit last summer despite the free-agent acquisition of Melvin Ingram, was thrust into the role out of necessity late in his rookie campaign after Dupree suffered a torn ACL in early December.
Even though Highsmith acquitted himself quite well down the stretch of the 2020 season and into the playoffs, the defense clearly missed the type of weapon Dupree had developed into over his final two seasons in Pittsburgh.
Did the Steelers' defense miss Dupree in 2021? With critical season-ending injuries sustained by both Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu on the defensive line, and with linebacker Devin Bush struggling to come back from a torn ACL injury suffered in 2020, it’s safe to say the Steelers at least missed the player Dupree was before his own injury—Dupree struggled to post anywhere near the same kinds of numbers he did for his new team, the Titans, a season ago.
Of course, T.J. Watt, who posted 15 sacks in 2020 opposite Dupree, who was on pace for 11.5 before the knee injury, took quarterbacks to the turf a whopping 22.5 times last year.
Watt more than made up for the absence of Dupree. As for Highsmith, he did okay in the sack department in 2021 by tallying six.
That’s good, honest production from a second-year player who was picked in the third round.
But is there more meat on the bone for Highsmith, if you will?
Can Highsmith take his game to a whole new level in 2022 and go from full-time starter to prolific pass-rusher? He’s certainly going to get the opportunity. I mean, how can he not? What sane and intelligent defensive coordinator wouldn’t try and do everything that he could to stop, or marginally disrupt, Watt, especially after he just won his first Defensive Player of the Year award?
If Tuitt and Alualu can perform at or close to the level they have in the past, that should make for an even more formidable front-seven, which, in turn, should give Highsmith all of the one-on-one battles he desires.
Of course, there’s far more to being an outside linebacker than just rushing the passer, and Highsmith has certainly shown the potential to be a more well-rounded player over his first two seasons.
Can Highsmith be that? You had to like the improvement shown between his first and second season, especially the physical transformation going into last summer’s training camp.
The work ethic is there, as is the drive and determination.
Finally, the opportunity to turn the corner is also there. Does Alex Highsmith have it in him to do just that?
I have a funny feeling that he does.