Chukwuma Okorafor spoke to reporters before practice yesterday. When he was asked about who was standing out to him other than the obvious T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, he began his answer without hesitation—in fact, before the reporter had even been able to get his question out: “Alex”.
That would be Alex Highsmith, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third-round draft pick, the outside linebacker out of Charlotte who rose up the draft boards after a good Combine performance and after scouts finally got around to checking out his small-school tape for his senior year when he was finally put on the edge.
“Alex I would say, him kind of showing a little bit of flash every couple plays”, he said of a player who was impressing him. “He’s kind of new, so it takes time, but that means him knowing what to do on defense after he kind of knows everything he’s gonna play faster. But yeah, I think him”.
After the Steelers let Anthony Chickillo go in a salary cap cut earlier this year, it opened the doors wide open for somebody to step in and take over the number three outside linebacker role behind Watt and Dupree. There are two returning players in Olasunkanmi Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper, who have a combined 120 or so defensive snaps in their careers, with little production.
In other words, there is a genuine opportunity available for Highsmith, the rookie, to step in and get some playing time this year as a rotational player, provided that he continues to have an upward trajectory. Especially if the Steelers can get some leads and rest their starters, that would give a young guy with a pass-rushing edge the opportunity to take the field.
It goes without saying that he is going to be asked to make an impact on special teams. Any rookie linebacker who makes the team is pretty much inevitably going to play special teams. Even Watt did it despite being a starter. Devin Bush was the rare exception, only playing 57 snaps there last year, but he also played almost 900 snaps on defense.
That won’t be asked of Highsmith. He will primarily be used for mop-up duty if he does manage to put himself in a position where the coaches trust him enough to put him on the field. And he will have to show up ahead of Adeniyi and Skipper as well.
Both of the former undrafted Toledo players are interesting prospects, but the reality is that they are untested. They have looked good in the preseason, but that doesn’t tell you much, necessarily. Likewise, Highsmith’s reps against Okorafor aren’t going to tell you that he is going to be their next starter on the edge. But it’s never a bad thing to be recognized for standing out in a positive way in practice.