If there is any way to read into some silly rankings based on one writer’s opinions, the Pittsburgh Steelers are in pretty good hands in the trenches on both sides of the football moving forward.
On Sunday, ESPN’s Rivers McCown dropped his Top 25 prospect rankings for NFL players. While that might sound like more of a baseball thing (it really is), McCown took a unique angle, sticking to some important criteria for the list: The players must be drafted in the third round or later, or signed as an undrafted free agent; the player must have entered the NFL between 2018 and 2020; played fewer than 500 career offensive or defensive snaps (except running backs, who are allowed just 300 offensive snaps); player must have not signed a contract extension (players who have bounced around the league looking for the right spot, however, still qualify for the list); and the player must be age 26 or younger as of September 1, 2021.
So, knowing that criteria, it shouldn’t be a surprise to read that Pittsburgh Steelers EDGE Alex Highsmith and left guard Kevin Dotson cracked the list for McCown. What is surprising though is how high up the two 2020 mid-round draft picks cracked the ranking.
Highsmith came in at No. 5, while Dotson came in one slot behind him at No. 6 overall. In fact, the AFC North had five of the top 10 players in the rankings, with Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati landing one player each in the rankings.
Highsmith is slated to start opposite T.J. Watt in 2021 after closing the year as the starter following Bud Dupree’s knee injury. With Dupree now in Tennessee, it appears to be Highsmith’s job, though the Steelers did bring in veteran pass rusher Melvin Ingram for depth.
So far though, Highsmith has had a really good training camp and appears bigger and stronger entering his second season.
“Pittsburgh took a bet on Highsmith’s ridiculous 2019 season at Charlotte, where he improved from three sacks as a junior to 15 as a senior. Running a 4.7-second 40-yard dash at 248 pounds at the combine, Highsmith was a bit light for the NFL, but he had the combine metrics for which we look,” McCown writes. “SackSEER, our edge rusher projection system, had Highsmith with a top-10 “explosion index” — its ranking of a player’s athleticism — in the 2020 class.
“Playing behind Bud Dupree and learning for a year was the plan for Highsmith, but when Dupree tore his ACL in Week 12, Highsmith immediately became an almost-every-down player for Pittsburgh. He notched five quarterback hits and a sack in those final five games of the season, but was noticeably absent from the playoff game once the Browns created a massive game-script advantage. He wasn’t trusted against the run just yet.”
As for Dotson, the fourth-round draft pick out of Louisiana moved from right guard in college to left guard and started four games in 2020 due to injuries. The young, powerful left guard looks like a future building block along the offensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers and clearly fits the new emphasis on an improved rushing attack with some nastiness in the trenches.
“Well, it was one season — and an abbreviated one at that — but in four starts, Dotson allowed zero sacks and blew zero pass blocks,” McCown writes. “David DeCastro missed time with an ankle injury in 2020, and the Steelers didn’t have the great offensive line you remember creating lanes for Willie Parker. They were abysmal last year, and change was naturally coming. So they are turning over the entire interior line, essentially handing Dotson a starting job at left guard without a real competition. That speaks to the level of belief they have in him.”
The Steelers certainly do believe in Dotson — and Highsmith, for that matter. Though it’s hard to label the 2021 season a make-or-break one for both young building blocks, the upcoming season will go a long way towards determining just how big of building blocks the two can be in the trenches.