While the 2020 NFL season still has a few weeks remaining it, Pro Football Focus is already looking way ahead of the 2021 season and specifically when it comes to the players they believe are now set to have breakout years. On Tuesday, Sam Monson took on the task of identifying one candidate from all 32 teams who will have a breakout 2021 season. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, Monson tabbed outside linebacker Alex Highsmith as potentially being that player for them.
Here is what Monson wrote about his reasons for choosing Highsmith as the Steelers 2021 breakout candidate.
Alex Highsmith had to step into the starting role after Bud Dupree went down injured. With Dupree hitting free agency, Highsmith may well get the chance to stay there in 2021. Highsmith had 22 total pressures from 224 pass-rushing snaps and also had an outstanding and critically timed interception. It wasn’t all great from Highsmith, but you wouldn’t expect it to be for a third-round rookie out of Charlotte. That he was able to do as well as he did when called into action as a starter bodes well for his future prospects.
In total, Highsmith logged 437 regular season defensive snaps and 267 more on special teams as a rookie. 299 of those defensive snaps came in the Steelers final five regular season games and after starting outside linebacker Bud Dupree was lost to his serious knee injury. In those five regular season games that Highsmith stared in place of the injured Dupree, he registered 28 total tackles of which two resulted in lost yardage. He was credited with five total quarterback hits and one sack. In the Steelers lone playoff game against the Cleveland Browns, Highsmith played just 19 total defensive snaps and six more snaps on special teams. An ankle injury knocked him out of that game after he had recorded just two total tackles.
Highsmith made tremendous strides as a pass rusher during his rookie season and that included him showing several primary moves along with a counter or two. Against the run, Highsmith also had his moments with some of those being bad mixed in there.
As a pass rusher, Highsmith now needs to get stronger and potentially work on either a bull rush or long-arm move. He has nice quickness around the edge that is accompanied by a nice bend, both of which we saw on his college tape., Power moves and strength to set the edge against the run are areas that Highsmith will likely be asked to improve in during the offseason.
For a rookie edge-rusher in the Steelers defensive scheme, Highsmith really represented himself well. Moving forward into his second season, it’s quite reasonable to make a jump forward of some kind in his overall production and especially if he becomes a full-time starter due the expected free agency exodus of Dupree.
Dupree set a high bar for Highsmith to potentially clear in the Charlotte product’s second season. After all, Dupree had eight sacks, 31 total tackles, eight tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hits, two passes defensed and two forced fumbles to his credit by the time he suffered his knee injury late in the Steelers Week 12 game.
Can Highsmith come close to producing eight or more sacks in his second season and fully compliment fellow starting outside linebacker T.J. Watt the way Dupree has the last two seasons? We’ll certainly see. In the meantime, however, Highsmith is a good choice by Monson and especially on the defensive side of the football for the Steelers.
Below are just a few highlights of Highsmith from his 2020 rookie season.