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What could a Steelers extension for Alex Highsmith look like?

The Steelers’ burgeoning fourth-year edge rusher should be compensated well.

New Orleans Saints v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

With the Steelers having finished Week One of team OTAs, the organization’s offseason progresses as activities ramp up. OTAs will continue through June 8 before mandatory minicamp commences on June 13.

Prominent Pittsburgh storylines so far include the continued growth of second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett; the presence of new veterans, such as Patrick Peterson and Isaac Seumalo; and young players bursting onto the scene, namely Broderick Jones, Joey Porter Jr. and Calvin Austin.

Another noteworthy thread? Team extensions before the start of the 2023 preseason.

Last year, Pittsburgh doled out new deals to Diontae Johnson (two years, $36.71 million) and Chris Boswell (four years, $20 million) in early August in the midst of training camp. This year, the player most likely to receive an extension is edge rusher Alex Highsmith.

In 2022, Highsmith posted career numbers. His 14.5 sacks were more than that of his prior two years combined, ranking sixth in the entire NFL. Further, Highsmith recorded a league-high five forced fumbles, plus 55 total pressures and 12 tackles for loss. His play was so good that he even outperformed some legitimate stars.

Highsmith, drafted in the third round in 2020, enters 2023 on the last year of his four-year rookie contract. Consequently, it would behoove Omar Khan and the Steelers to engage in contract discussion this summer before Highsmith has the chance to hit the open market.

According to BTSC’s own Jeff Hartman, the team is doing just that. On his May 22 episode of the “Let’s Ride” podcast, Hartman reported that an extension for Highsmith could happen at minicamp or the beginning of training camp. Further, Hartman noted that ongoing talks between the camps are regarding structure (e.g., guaranteed money, signing bonuses, etc.) rather than finances.

Per Hartman, the deal could be three to four years, worth “roughly” $17 million annually, which is “fair market.” Per Spotrac’s evaluations, Highsmith’s market value is four years, $55.636 million, which translates to $13.91 million per year.

Based on last year’s — and his career — production, what range of numbers is roughly justified for Highsmith? What might the structure of the deal look like? Let’s take a deeper look.

From the outset, one of the major criticisms of Highsmith is that while he flourished in almost every statistical category last season, his production wasn’t maintained when T.J. Watt was injured from Weeks 2-9. Below is a breakdown of Highsmith’s per-game stats with and without Watt from a year ago.

Highsmith With/Without Watt, 2022

Stats (per Game) Highsmith Without Watt (7 Games) Highsmith With Watt (10 Games)
Stats (per Game) Highsmith Without Watt (7 Games) Highsmith With Watt (10 Games)
Sacks 0.5 1.1
Pressures 2.86 3.5
TFLs 0.714 0.7
Forced Fumbles 0.142 0.4
Pressure data via PFF.

As the team’s primary pass rusher, Highsmith’s sack number was more than cut in half, while he generated fewer pressures and forced fumbles sans Watt, too. However, all numbers are still more than solid and would extrapolate well over a full year.

It’s also paramount to remember this: Highsmith is expected to be the team’s second-best edge rusher, in tandem with Watt. To knock Highsmith for producing as Watt is double-teamed is inherently counterintuitive, because that’s exactly what the Steelers want to happen. The two form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL and work off of one another’s acumen.

Regardless of Watt, Highsmith has continued to develop as a pass-rusher throughout his three seasons in the NFL, refining his repertoire (see: his lethal spin move) while maintaining a bedrock of outstanding run defense. Highsmith’s PFF run defense grade of 73.3 last season was 16th in the NFL among EDGEs to see 500+ snaps, besting names like Za’Darius Smith, Danielle Hunter and Myles Garrett.

Highsmith, still yet to turn 26, has amassed 22.5 sacks, 114 pressures, 32 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles in 49 career games. How do those game-by-game averages compare to edge defenders who earned lucrative extensions? Here’s a glimpse into a few recent major deals and how Highsmith stacks up.

Highsmith vs. Recent Extendees

Career Stat/Game (at point of signing) Alex Highsmith Harold Landry Bradley Chubb Shaq Barrett Zach Allen
Career Stat/Game (at point of signing) Alex Highsmith Harold Landry Bradley Chubb Shaq Barrett Zach Allen
Age (at signing) Currently 25.8 25.8 26.3 28.3 25.5
AAV ?? $17.5M $22M $17M $15.25
Sacks 0.459 0.484 0.531 0.451 0.256
Pressures 2.32 3.51 3.27 3.09 1.86
TFLs 0.653 0.641 0.673 0.598 0.6
Forced Fumbles 0.122 0.047 0.122 0.163 0
Pressure data via PFF.

Highsmith’s pressure numbers are not entirely on par with Bradley Chubb, Harold Landry or Shaq Barrett (at the points at which they got their extensions), but the Steeler more than holds his own in terms of sack and tackle for loss production.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Chubb, Landry and Barrett are all expected to be their team’s primary pass-rusher, too. Zach Allen, who joined the Broncos this offseason, will likely be second in command behind Baron Browning; however, Allen is also more of a versatile defensive lineman and less of a true edge rusher.

Based on the ages, production and AAVs of the four players outlined, Highsmith should likely earn $15.5-$18 million per year — regardless of the fact he’s a clear second option behind Watt. Accounting for the continued growth of contracts at every position, especially edge rusher, Highsmith might even seek $20-22 million, though that feels a little steep considering this is the list of players above that threshold: Watt, Joey Bosa, Garrett, Khalil Mack, Maxx Crosby, Chubb, Leonard Williams, Von Miller.

Factoring in Hartman’s reporting and Highsmith’s age, a four-year deal seems logical. I’ll estimate four years, $66 million, which would put the Charlotte product at a $16.5 million AAV. That figure would rank 15th in football and surpass players such as Emmanuel Ogbah, Allen, Hendrickson, Carl Lawson and Haason Reddick.

When Watt signed his four-year, $112 million megadeal in September 2021, Pittsburgh gave $80 million guaranteed with a $35.59 million signing bonus, plus just an $8.1 million cap hit the first year of the deal. I’d forecast a similarly backloaded deal for Highsmith, especially one with incentives (e.g., Pro Bowl appearances, years with 10+ sacks, etc.). With $66 million total, having $40 million guaranteed seems reasonable, plus a signing bonus of $15-17 million.

Inherently, Steelers fans may be anguished to grant such a large sum to a complementary edge rusher, especially considering what happened with Bud Dupree. Dupree elected to leave Pittsburgh and ink a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Titans in March 2021. Just two years later, he was cut.

However, there are several key distinctions to make. When Dupree signed in Nashville, he was 28; Highsmith won’t turn 26 until August. Likewise, Dupree missed major portions of two seasons (2016 and 2020) due to injury, most significantly a torn ACL in 2020. On the other hand, Highsmith has proven incredibly durable, missing just one career game because of a groin injury in 2021.

Pittsburgh’s defense boasts some of the league’s best and highest-paid defenders in Watt, Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick, but it’s tough to overstate the value that Highsmith provides. Given his upward trajectory, high ceiling and consistent growth, Highsmith should expect to be compensated for his stellar 2022 — and the Steelers should be inclined to mirror that.