The Pittsburgh Steelers have had one of the top defenses in the league over the course of the past two years, but this offseason has not been kind to that unit, seeing three starters depart — two via free agency and one as a salary cap casualty.
Perhaps the biggest individual loss was that of six-year veteran outside linebacker Bud Dupree. While a predictable departure, the Steelers are in a position where they must put the majority of their eggs in the basket of one young man. Head coach Mike Tomlin was not beating around the bush in acknowledging that earlier today during the team’s pre-draft press conference.
“In regards to the loss of Bud and the expectations and the depth at that position, the lynchpin of that entire discussion is the natural maturation of Alex Highsmith from year one to year two,” he told reporters a short time ago. “You know the standard of expectations that we have for our young players moving from [year] one to two. He could be the poster boy for that. We need a significant rise in terms of all areas of play from him.”
“I also think it’s reasonable to expect it, given what he’s been exposed to, given the quality young man that he is, and his work ethic and the environment that we intend to put him in,” he added. “I think it’s reasonable to expect him to rise up and meet the challenges.”
By and large, this is boilerplate material at this time of year when discussing young players, particularly last year’s rookies. But the discussion of Highsmith in particular takes on a heightened importance and urgency given the need for that rise to have material effect in the here and now.
A third-round compensatory draft pick out of small-school Charlotte a year ago, Highsmith came in last year and exceeded expectations, proving very quickly that he was capable of being a contributor at the NFL level, making that sizable jump in the level of competition, even without the benefit of a proper offseason.
He already has six starts under his belt, including the postseason, because he was the one who took over at the end of last season following Dupree’s torn ACL. On the year, he finished with 48 tackles, including five for a loss, in addition to two sacks, six hits, an interception, and a pass defensed.
While those are fine numbers relative to what he was asked to do and given his level of experience, Highsmith will not have the luxury of being a novice anymore and the leeway that status provides. Presuming that he will indeed be the starter on the right side this year, he will be expected to give them what Dupree has been giving them the past few years.
As Tomlin notes, there are good reasons to believe he’s capable of doing that. But it’s up to him to produce those results and justify the optimism in his ability to step up to that level and take over one of the most important jobs on the team.
But at least he has T.J. Watt on the other side.