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2021 Training Camp Battles: Starting Outside Linebacker

With training camp just around the corner, it’s time to turn our focus on what is going on within each position, and on the roster as a whole. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be taking a closer look at some of the roster battles that we expect to see unfold over the course of training camp as the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for the start of the 2021 season.

Unlike last season, which was carried out through a pandemic, things should return much to normal this year, which should help provide us with clearer insights into where people stand. The return of the preseason in particular is a crucial window into operations that we lacked a year ago.

Position: Outside Linebacker

Up for Grabs: Starting Job

In the Mix: Alex Highsmith, Melvin Ingram

We wouldn’t be doing our due diligence if we ignored this, especially after recent comments, for example, made by defensive coordinator Keith Butler when he asked about what the signing of Melvin Ingram means for Alex Highsmith.

“I don’t know, we’ll see”, he told reporters on Friday when he was asked if it was his expectation that Highsmith would retain his projected role of starter, which had been the case since Bud Dupree left in free agency. “I’m not going to expect anything, I’m just going to watch them. So, we’ll see”.

Highsmith, a third-round pick out of Charlotte last year, put together an impressive rookie season, made all the more so by the fact that he did it all without a proper offseason—and no preseason at all—following a college career at a small school, during which he didn’t have that much experience playing on the outside.

With all that said, Melvin Ingram is a first-round pedigree guy whose career has backed it up, with three Pro Bowls to his name. As is often the case for players at the career stage he’s now in, there are questions about his durability, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be the second-best outside linebacker on the team, behind T.J. Watt.

The likely reality is that, no matter how this all breaks, all three of them are going to get decent playing time. Whoever isn’t on the field to start the game is still probably going to play 25-30 snaps every week as he gives the other guys a breather. It could potentially be even more than that, with an emphasis on a minor rotation on the right side.

While I think we are all rooting for Highsmith to succeed individually and believe he has the talent to go on to have a great career, the reality is that the Steelers have put themselves in a position in which they now have a good problem to have: Figure out which of two starter-quality pass rushers to pair with the best in the game.

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