Quite a bit will be expected out of second year Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith in 2021 as the former third-round draft pick out of Charlotte is now poised to be the starter opposite T.J. Watt this upcoming season. Can Highsmith pick up on the right side of the Steelers defense where former Steelers starting outside linebacker Bud Dupree left off at in 2020? Time will certainly tell. In the meantime, however, and prior to training camps around the NFL getting underway, Highsmith has been tabbed the Steelers under-the-radar player that may be poised for a big breakout campaign in 2021 by Tyler Sullivan of CBS Sports.
Sullivan’s latest offering on under-the-radar players for 2021 is focused on the 16 AFC teams with Highsmith being his choice for the Steelers. Below is reason for choosing Highsmith for the Steelers.
Bud Dupree is now a Titan and it looks like it will be Alex Highsmith who gets the luxury of starting opposite of T.J. Watt along Pittsburgh’s front seven. Naturally, opposing offenses will be making it a priority to stop Watt, which then opens the door for Highsmith — or anyone opposite him — to see single coverage and possibly open avenues at the quarterback. The 2020 third-round pick did play well throughout his rookie season as well, totaling 12 pressure, two sacks and six hurries. When you combine that talent with this situation, Highsmith could be looked at as Pittsburgh’s latest promising young pass rusher.
Highsmith, who took over as the team’s starter in Week 12 last season after Dupree was lost to a knee injury, played reasonably well as a rookie. He showed a nice array of pass rush moves and counters during his 2020 rookie season and the experience he gained in his roughly 450 total defensive snaps should prove invaluable as he readies himself for his second NFL season.
With Watt likely to garner a lot of attention from opposing offenses in 2021, it’s imperative that Highsmith wins consistently on his side as a pass rusher starting in Week 1. Recently, Highsmith talked some about what will be expected of him in 2021 when it comes to playing opposite Watt.
“I think it’s good to have two guys, you know, that can really get after the quarterback on both sides,” Highsmith said back in March. “You know, because if you don’t, then one guy – the offensive line is just going to slide one way to the guy who’s doing better. And so, I think that just coming in this year, I gotta be able to produce like T.J. does so that the offensive line doesn’t scheme against him. So, I just got to come in and just be the best that I can be to even out that rush, to leave off where Bud was doing.”
As part of him hopefully making a huge jump in 2021, Highsmith is working on getting better in several areas of his game this offseason. One of those areas he identified as needing improvement in a few weeks ago is his get-off.
“I’ve got to get better at my get-off,” Highsmith admitted after an OTA session. “That’s something I can always get better at. If you don’t beat the lineman to the spot, a lot of times, that move’s not going to work, so if I can get my get-off a whole lot better, it’s easier to execute my move, and just accelerate to the quarterback”.
Quite a few expert NFL analysts believed the Steelers should have drafted an edge rusher early in this year’s draft. He’s now using that analysis as motivation for this upcoming season.
“I did see some reports that really just gave me more motivation to just be the best that I can be and just continue to work harder”, Highsmith said recently. “I think it shows that they do have faith in me to be able to come in and to earn this role. I would really just say it gave me more motivation just to work even harder when I did see those reports coming out”.
There certainly is a good reason to think that Highsmith might just be the Steelers top breakout player in 2021 based on 2020 advanced analytics. Highsmith made a tackle on nearly 10 percent of his snaps (9.9 percent tackle rate) and that was the second-highest rate among edge defenders in 2020 (min. 400 snaps), according to Next Gen Stats. In terms of Highsmith’s speed in the first 3 yards traveled, he ranked in the top 10 percent in 2020; and his hips stayed facing the quarterback even after contact at a rate in the top 15 percent, per the report.