With a starting role opposite All-Pro pass rusher T.J. Watt in front of him, Pittsburgh Steelers’ second-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith will have all eyes on him in 2021.
After losing Bud Dupree in free agency to the Tennessee Titans, the Steelers are asking Highsmith to take on the starting role, a role he held down late in 2020 after Dupree tore his ACL against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 11. Though Highsmith flashed at times, he still needs to find some consistency to his game as a pass rusher and run defender.
Despite some limitations and relative inexperience, The Athletic‘s Ed Bouchette pegged Highsmith as the Steelers’ best breakout candidate in 2021 in a recent 32-team piece on the subscription-based website.
“Linebacker Alex Highsmith moves into the prime pass-rushing position in his second season. He will start at right outside linebacker, replacing departed free agent Bud Dupree. With T.J. Watt on the other side and end/tackle Cam Heyward in front of him, Highsmith will be surrounded by talent that can only help him be successful,” Bouchette writes. “He showed flashes as a rookie third-round pick in ’20, first as a sub for Dupree and Watt and when he started five games after Dupree’s season ended with an injury. He had two sacks, an interception and six quarterback hits.”
Highsmith finished his rookie season with 48 tackles, two sacks, five tackles for loss, six quarterback hits, one interception and one pass defensed. He looked strong as a pass rusher, showing a good inside spin move and some burst to turn the corner. He’ll need to improve his get-off to take advantage of his speed and length, but overall he was solid as a rookie for a guy going from a walk-on at Charlotte University in Conference USA to a guy seeing meaningful snaps in the NFL right out of the gate.
For what it’s worth, as a rookie Highsmith recorded a grade of 72.0 in Pro Football Focus’ grading metrics, good for the 34th-best edge defender in football, ahead of names such as Yannick Ngakoue, Chase Winovich, and Jason Pierre-Paul.
The sky is the limit for Highsmith. All eyes are on the second-year pro in 2021 to see if he can develop into that strong No. 2 opposite Watt, keeping the Steelers’ vaunted pass rush up to snuff.