Genuine and sincere praise for rookies is never a bad thing. Historically, the Pittsburgh Steelers have actually been reluctant to say too many nice things about them, though they seem to have changed their tune more recently, especially since they began relying upon them to play early more frequently.
Mike Tomlin’s standard remark when asked about a good practice by a rookie in years past might have been simply, ‘he’s a rookie’. Now he lavishes praise on the likes of Alex Highsmith, their third-round outside linebacker. And he hasn’t been the only one doing it.
Just on Tuesday, tackle Chukwuma Okorafor was asked to pick somebody who was standing out to him. Before the reporter even finished the question, he already answered, “Alex”. Yesterday, both defensive coordinator Keith Butler and outside linebacker T.J. Watt both acknowledged his quality play so far in training camp.
“I think Alex has done a great job of just being ready in this and all these tough circumstances to be a rookie”, he told reporters. “I think he knows the defense really well. He’s making all the proper calls, he’s asking all the right questions and I feel like he can definitely fill in when needed. And I think Bud and I found out last year that we can’t play the full game. We can’t play every single snap if we want to play to our fullest potential. So I think he can definitely help rotate into games this year”.
That’s actually pretty high praise, although it’s not been uncommon for rookie outside linebackers to get playing time. Watt himself, of course, was a first-year starter from the get-go. Dupree rotated for most of his rookie season before entering the starting lineup. Jarvis Jones was also in and out of the lineup. Previously, Jason Worilds got rotational work as a rookie in 2010 behind James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
With Anthony Chickillo having been released, the number three edge defender position was vacated. While Olasunkanmi Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper both return from last season, neither are a proven commodity, so it is not unrealistic to believe that Highsmith could ultimately bypass them on the depth chart and end up playing perhaps a couple hundred snaps this season on defense.
I also think it’s notable that Watt was pretty clear in saying that they want to do more rotation this year. Especially as the defense minimizes the coverage responsibilities of the position, the outside linebackers are going to take more of a beating, so having somebody they can trust to come on the field and play some effective ball is critical.
Having two is even better, and certainly they’re still hoping that Adeniyi and Skipper can prove to be the diamonds in the rough that they have hinted at in preseasons past. Both are interesting, but, as said, they have yet to prove anything. Of course, neither has Highsmith, but he may be the first to get a shot at it behind the starters this year.