The Pittsburgh Steelers have their hands full during training camp as they explore whether or not they have satisfactorily answered the many questions they faced at the start of the offseason. One of the biggest questions is what is next for the outside linebacker position following the departure of Bud Dupree.
They drafted Alex Highsmith in the third round last year knowing that they would likely lose Dupree, but now it’s Highsmith’s turn. He looked mature beyond his experience as a rookie already, and he has turned it up a notch so far in training camp, but his teammates aren’t lauding him just yet—largely, because they have such high expectations for him.
“He hasn’t exceeded it”, Cameron Heyward said when he was asked about Highsmith’s level of play and whether or not he’s gone above and beyond expectations. “I got big goals for him, and it’s only preseason. I don’t really judge anybody off of their preseason work. He’s got a long way to go, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s capable of a lot, and we’re expecting it in his second year”.
As a rookie, Highsmith played in every game, and started the final five of the regular season after Dupree tore his ACL, playing 427 snaps in total. He managed a significant 48 tackles in that time, including five tackles for loss. He notched two sacks, but also had six quarterback hits and 12 total pressures, according to Pro Football Reference, in addition to an interception and two passes defensed.
A small-school product out of Charlotte, Highsmith didn’t even spend most of his career playing out on the edge, which makes the polish that he displayed as a rookie and his level of understanding of a pass rush repertoire and how to set up moves all the more impressive.
While perhaps not at the elite level, he also has significant athletic abilities that set him up well for success. One of the things that the coaches asked him to do this offseason is to put on a little more muscle. He appears to have done that, emerging as the star of the backs-on-backers drill—at least in T.J. Watt’s absence as he sits out practices.
Still, the Steelers are hedging their bets. They inked veteran former Pro Bowler Melvin Ingram to a one-year, $4 million contract shortly before training camp started, which not only puts the pressure on Highsmith, but gives them a fallback option, as well as somebody to rotate in to allow them to keep everybody fresh.