With their third pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers went back to defense after using their first-round pick a year ago to bring in safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. This time, they went with an edge defender in round three, drafting Alex Highsmith, a small-school product who is now the only drafted player behind their two first-round starters.
Earlier this offseason, the Steelers released five-year veteran outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo one year into a two-year, $8 million contract. It was a predictable move, but it left them with just two inexperienced former undrafted free agents behind T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.
In comes Highsmith, who has everything on tape that you would one to see out of an edge defender…or at least just about. He will need to bulk up a bit and show more grit setting the edge against the run, but he is a guy who is going to get after the passer. And that is what he is here for.
“We now have three Heisman Trophy quarterbacks in the AFC North, so we’ve got to employ guys who can get after those guys”, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said after making the pick. The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens both drafted Heisman winners in 2018 with Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. With the first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals selected 2019 Heisman winner Joe Burrow, coming off of one of the all-time great college football seasons.
Earlier this month, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that the Steelers were eager to bolster their outside linebacker depth, not just because of the loss of Chickillo, but also because the team has put increased emphasis on the outside linebackers focusing on rushing the passer during passing downs rather than dropping into coverage.
“Hopefully he will aid us in that regard”, Tomlin said of Highsmith.
Added general manager Kevin Colbert, “he’s not going to get a redshirt year”, now at a position where the only depth behind Watt and Dupree are Olasunkanmi Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper. Adeniyi was undrafted out of Toledo in 2018. Skipper was undrafted out of Toledo in 2019.
Adeniyi made some noise in his rookie preseason with three sacks and two forced fumbles. He made the team as a rookie but spent most of the year on injured reserve, and only played a handful of snaps in one game. He didn’t play much last season, either.
Skipper was a rookie minicamp invitee, winning a spot on the 90-man roster over former seventh-round pick Keion Adams. He recorded five sacks with two strips during his rookie preseason in 2019, making the initial 53-man roster, but being waived a day before the opener.
He was claimed off waivers and would spend most of the season with the New York Giants, where he did get some playing time. By the end of the year, however, he would wind up back in Pittsburgh, though he was inactive for the games on which he was on the roster.