The Pittsburgh Steelers are not ordinarily the team of team that likes to dip into the small-school well too often, at least not in recent history. Once upon a time, they helped carve out a dynasty by mining the talent that was going overlooked by other teams, but scouting has changed significantly since then, with far fewer blind spots.
This year, however, they did add another small-school player, drafting Alex Highsmith in the third round, an outside linebacker out of Charlotte. He played along the defensive line, collegiately, of course, but will be asked to play standing up in Pittsburgh.
“I’m ready for the challenge”, he told reporters on his teleconference after he was drafted. “Me being from a small school, I haven’t got as much competition playing against the best, but some of my best games the past couple years have been the Power 5 teams we’ve played”.
“I just can’t wait to get to work”, he added. “I’m hoping we can report to the facility soon, but as for now, I’m doing whatever I can to stay in shape, get into the playbook. I’m just ready to get to work”.
Highsmith comes to the Steelers at a recent high-point for the outside linebacker position, with T.J. Watt coming off of back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, earning first-team All-Pro honors a year ago and finishing among the finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. He has 27.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles over the past two years.
Bud Dupree is also coming off a career year with 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, which are essentially double the previous career-highs he had established during his first four seasons. But he is now entering year six and is currently signed under the franchise tag, so his status beyond 2021 is up in the air for now.
After releasing Anthony Chickillo during the offseason as a salary cap casualty, the team was left with only Olasunkanmi Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper as reserves at the position, both former undrafted free agents over the past two seasons who have minimal playing time.
Outside of first-rounders, Highsmith is the highest outside linebacker selection the team has made since Jason Worilds in the second round in 2010. Of course, the Steelers have drafted three outside linebackers in the first round since then, including Watt, Dupree, and Jarvis Jones, who is no longer in the league.
Pittsburgh is hoping for Highsmith to come in and provide immediate depth as a pass-rusher. The Steelers are sending their outside linebackers after the passer more than ever, and want to make sure they have depth when their horses get winded.