The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: Alex Highsmith will be expected to log roughly as much time on the field as T.J. Watt without additional substitution.
Explanation: Alex Highsmith is a second-year player with five starts and 437 defensive snaps to his name. Yet he’s the clear starting right outside linebacker this year, with only veteran journeyman Cassius Marsh and sixth-round rookie Quincy Roche as competition.
All you have to do is look at the numbers. In three of the five starts that he made at the end of last season, he was on the field for more than 90 percent of the snaps. His snap counts were pretty similar to Watt’s, especially after his first start, in which he played 83 percent of the snaps. In fact, Highsmith out-snapped him in two of the four games in which they both played, or at least matched his snap count.
And they had more experienced, more familiar depth last year, with Ola Adeniyi in his third year, and Jayrone Ellliott also versed in the Steelers’ system. Marsh was a newcomer at that point, but he wound up as their top backup.
It’s also not uncommon for Watt to come off the field for a bit. He was on the field for under 90 percent of the snaps in 10 of 15 games played during the regular season. That includes five games of 85 percent or fewer snaps. It’s not too much to ask of Highsmith.
It’s so obvious that it doesn’t really even need saying, but Watt is the foundation of the position group. He’s the guy who needs to be on the field in all critical situations. He’s also the guy whose durability and endurance are unquestioned, the guy the coaches know they can leave on the field.
Highsmith has done everything right, pretty much, up to this point in his career, but he hasn’t risen to any kind of stature. Whether fans agree with it or not, the team likes Marsh and what he can offer, which is why they brought him back. Pittsburgh expects him to play some.
Then you have Roche. While he was a late-round pick, the Steelers see him as a much higher-valued prospect. If he’s going to get playing time, it’s going to come at Highsmith’s expense, not Watt’s, unless it’s in a blowout, which I wouldn’t expect to see much of this year.