Many scoffed at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to trade away a first-round pick in 2019, even if they felt good about the prospects of Minkah Fitzpatrick making an impact at safety in their defense. As a team that prioritizes the draft to build their roster, first-round picks are vital, and they haven’t been without one since the 1960s.
Yet in spite of the fact that they only had six draft picks in 2020, with just one in the top 100, the Steelers still managed to have a quite worthwhile, and even impactful, draft class, with their second-round pick, wide receiver Chase Claypool, certainly worth a first-rounder.
Perhaps the most surprising success story was their third-round selection of Alex Highsmith, who did well as a rotational outside linebacker for the majority of the season before an injury to Bud Dupree late in the year put him in the starting lineup.
He finished the season logging more than 300 snaps, the vast bulk of it coming over the final five games of the regular season, finishing with an impressive 48 tackles (though that includes special teams), with five tackles for loss, two sacks, six hits, an interception, and a pass defensed.
Pro Football Focus was so impressed with his play that they named him their third-overall defensive rookie for the 2020 season, behind only cornerback L’Jarius Sneed of the Kansas City Chiefs, and of course, Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young, the edge rusher for the Washington Football Team.
“Didn’t play much early on in the season, but once Bud Dupree went down with a season-ending injury, it was Highsmith you was carrying his weight there on the right side of the defensive line”, a video on the NFL.com website states. “72.0 overall grade, 17 pressures over his final five games. Extrapolate that over a full season, and that would be a heck of a year with over 50 pressures. What a season for a guy drafted in the third round this past year”.
With Dupree almost sure to depart in free agency—even while recovering from a torn ACL—that places Highsmith in the starting lineup on a full-time basis headed into his second season, playing across from T.J. Watt, a two-time first-team All-Pro over the past two seasons.
There was certainly a time over the course of the past decade that the Steelers struggled to identify and draft quality pass-rushers, but they appear to have hit well on their two most recently high-end draft picks. Highsmith still has a lot to prove, but he is off to a good start.