The 2021 NFL Draft is drawing near, which is as fitting a time as any to take a look back at the rookie season of the Pittsburgh Steelers class from the 2020 NFL Draft. While draft analysis begins as soon as the pick is in, we now have a year’s worth of data on these players to gain more compelling insight.
Over the course of the next several days, I will be providing an evaluation of each rookie that the Steelers drafted, while also noting any undrafted free agents that were able to stick around. This will not include the likes of J.C. Hassenauer and Henry Mondeaux, because while the 2020 season was their first to accrue, they were not true rookies, but rather first-year players.
The Steelers went into the 2020 NFL Draft with just six selections, including no first-round pick after dealing it in 2019 to the Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Pittsburgh received a third-round compensatory pick for the loss of Le’Veon Bell. They traded away their natural third-round pick the year before to move up for Devin Bush.
They swapped fifth and sixth-round picks with Miami for fourth and seventh-round picks, while they sent their previous fifth-round pick to the Seahawks for Nick Vannett. Their other fifth-round pick, which they dealt to Miami, came from the Jaguars in exchange for Joshua Dobbs.
Continuing a recent trend, the class has proven to be top-heavy in terms of early results, though there are still opportunities for those selected by them in the later rounds of the draft to develop into bigger contributors as well.
Player: Alex Highsmith
Position: Outside Linebacker
Draft Status: Third Round (102nd overall)
Starts: 16 (5 starts)
There’s always a gamble involved to some degree when you draft a player who comes out of a small school, especially when he’s a “late riser” on the draft boards such as Alex Highsmith, whom you have to take earlier than you might have otherwise.
The good news on Highsmith is that, so far, it seems as though the draft gamble paid off. First and foremost, he came in NFL-ready, in the sense that he did not need a learning curve to be able to contribute. While little was demanded of Highsmith early after the draft, he was a special teams regular, and typically saw 10-15 snaps per game defensively prior to Bud Dupree’s injury.
Once Dupree went down, the young man was thrust into the starting lineup on a full-time basis, during which he logged about 90 percent of the team’s snaps in the five games he started at the end of the regular season. He accumulated an impressive 28 tackles during that span, as well as one sack and two quarterback hits.
The most exciting thing about Highsmith is that he has a lot of tools, which expands the limits of his potential. He has already made it clear that he wants to get stronger this offseason, the main knock against him as a rookie.
He figures to be a full-time starter in 2021 after Dupree departed in free agency. Right now, there’s not much behind him, anyway. Even if the Steelers draft somebody at this position early on, I would still expect him to be the guy, because he’s smart and has a well-rounded game with the ability to develop significantly, particularly as a pass rusher.