Back in August, and in the months before, we spent a lot of time openly wondering how much in terms of meaningful contributions the Pittsburgh Steelers would be able to see from its rookie class—a class that included just six players, with no picks in the first round, and only one selection in the top 100 picks.
After 12 weeks, the entire six-man class, plus a rookie undrafted free agent, is on the 53-man roster. All six have played meaningful snaps. Two have started games, and a third—third-round outside linebacker Alex Highsmith—is about to enter the starting lineup for the rest of the season.
That is, of course, due to the season-ending knee injury that Bud Dupree suffered late in the game against the Baltimore Ravens on Wednesday. With his torn ACL taking him out of the picture, Highsmith is now the next man up for a championship defense. Head coach Mike Tomlin discussed what the rookie is facing on The Mike Tomlin Show last night.
“He’s just got to go through the natural maturation process that’s associated with playing, and playing more, and it’s reasonable to expect his play to get better”, he said. “We’re excited about that. There’s nothing that’s transpired with him to this point in his career which would lead us to believe otherwise, so there’s an air of excitement about the trajectory of his play and what he’s gonna provide for us”.
Arguably the most impressive thing about the fact that Highsmith has been able to contribute this quickly is the fact that he was a small-school athlete who had only one year of great production at the position he was drafted to play.
On top of that, he didn’t have any preseason, nor any Spring workouts with the team at all. The only thing that he had before he started playing meaningful snaps in the NFL was an abbreviated training camp process that was closed to the public.
In spite of the odds he faced, he has been a positive contributor, both on defense and on special teams. He has totaled 20 tackles between both phases, including three tackles for loss. He also has an interception, a pass defensed, and a sack.
Exactly how much the Steelers will ask him to play in Dupree’s absence remains to be seen, and that will take time to unfold. Working off of a couple of short weeks, they will be using more rotational players than they might do ordinarily anyway.