Losing Bud Dupree for the back half of 2020 and permanently this offseason is a blow to the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Alex Highsmith filled those shoes about as well as you could hope for in someone’s rookie season. At first blush, his surface-level stats don’t look particularly impressive. In 16 games, five starts, he recorded just six QB hits and two sacks. But NextGen Stats show a much better performance.
Highsmith had a pass rush win rate of 24%, which would’ve ranked 7th in the NFL – one spot ahead of presumed Rookie of the Year Chase Young – had Highsmith had enough snaps to qualify.
Those numbers are more indicative of his performance. Highsmith was an advanced pass rusher coming out of Charlotte, despite only one year as an actual EDGE rusher (he was miscast as a 3-4 base end previously). Highsmith’s capable of winning with an array of moves: cross chop, ghost rush, inside spin are just some of the tools in his toolbelt. That makes him unpredictable for offensive tackles and gives him plenty of counters depending on how the tackle sets or the formation’s alignment. For example, his inside spin most often comes with the back aligned to his side to avoid getting chipped or bumped wide with an outside rush.
Highsmith needs to focus on getting strong to make for a more effective bull rush and long-arm. Him honing in on one or two go-to moves will be key as well, a theme we’ll harp on this summer. But he’s off to an excellent start. Things ended on a sour note, Highsmith suffering an ankle sprain in the Wild Card loss, but his father tweeted Highsmith will soon be healthy.
Highsmith has plenty of time to recover. It’s possible the NFL doesn’t hold offseason workouts for the second straight year due to COVID. Which wouldn’t put any Steelers on a football field until late July for training camp.
Pittsburgh won’t need to search for Dupree’s replacement. Highsmith will become that guy. But the Steelers will need to add depth at the position with either a low-level free agent or more likely, a draft pick. The team needs a #3 OLB to rotate in – as Highsmith was doing before Dupree’s injury – and to protect themselves incase a starter gets hurt. Ola Adeniyi plays serviceable run defense but struggles as a pass rusher while Cassius Marsh’s run defense was exposed in the playoffs.