In 2020, we started a new off season series to look at some players that were poised to have a breakout season. This is a look at those players who have been productive to this point in their careers but could be on the verge of busting out and getting more national recognition. Last year’s list included Diontae Johnson, Ray-Ray McCloud, Chukwuma Okorafor and Robert Spillane. This is a breakout candidate for the 2022 season.
Team success in the NFL is dependent on a lot of factors but high up on that list is rushing the passer. The Steelers have quite possibly the best in T.J. Watt and possibly the most underrated in Cam Heyward. Opposite of Watt at outside linebacker is Alex Highsmith and after being thrust into the starting lineup late in his rookie season due to the injury to Bud Dupree he has not shied away from the challenge.
In my opinion to this point, he has performed as expected. As a rookie he was better against the run totaling thirty total tackles and one sack in his final 6 starts at the end of the season. In year two, you could see his development as a pass rusher even though he was tasked with facing off primarily with left tackles who are often the best pass blockers on the offensive line. The results were good but I think he is just getting started.
To This Point
As a third round pick expectations are a bit muddy. You expect a third round pick to make the roster and make some plays but to what level? I took a look back at the 2020 NFL draft to look at how Highsmith compares to the other EDGE players taken. He was the eleventh DE/OLB taken and here is how he compares to the top 12 (top four rounds) based on regular season stats.
- Games Played – Highsmith (32), K’Lavon Chaisson (31), D.J Wonnum (31)
- Games Started – Chase Young (24), Highsmith (21), Wonnum (16)
- Interceptions – Marlon Davidson (1), Julian Okwara (1), Highsmith (1)
- Pass Breakups – Young (6), Jonathan Greenard (5), Wonnum (5)
- Forced Fumbles – Young (6), Trevis Gipson (5), five others (2)
- Fumble Recoveries – Young (3), five others (1)
- Sacks – Wonnum (11), Greenard, Young (9), Highsmith (8)
- Total Tackles – Highsmith (122), Wonnum (71), Young (70)
- Tackles per Game – Highsmith (3.81), Young, (2.92), Darrell Taylor (2.31)
- Tackles for a Loss – Highsmith (20), Young (13), Wonnum (12)
- QB Hits – Wonnum (24), Highsmith (21), Young (16)
You have to give Highsmith (and Wonnum who was drafted next after Highsmith) credit for outperforming the nine guys drafted between him and Young.
The improvement was evident on film but also in his statistical performance. Becoming the full time starter nearly doubled his snap count on defense and the combination of opportunity and his development improved numbers across the board.
His sacks tripled from two to six as well as his tackles for a loss from five to fifteen. Tackles jumped 54% from 48 to 74. Quarterback hits went from six to fifteen, quarterback hurries doubled from six to twelve and quarter back pressures increased from twelve to twenty-six.
Since he replaced Bud Dupree I thought it would be interesting to look at how Highsmith’s 2021 season compared to the averages for Dupree at his best in his final three seasons in Pittsburgh.
What can happen?
Finish Strong – This is something that Highsmith has already acknowledged months ago. His pressures are up and he is getting close to the quarterback more often but finishing the play and getting the sack is the goal. Now he obviously has a lot of competition to get the QB with Watt and Heyward but improving on his ability to process and anticipate the pocket movement of his opponents will lead to more production.
Consistency – So far in his career, including playoffs, he has played in 34 games. He has sacks in just seven of those games. In eighteen games in 2021, all of his sacks came in 5 games. He first sacks in 2020 didn’t come until week six. The next sacks came in week 10. Being more consistent game over game is an area to improve. The positive is he finished strong. From week sixteen through the playoff game he had four sacks in four games only coming up empty in week eighteen versus Baltimore.
Force The Issue – This point follows closely with the other two and that is forcing more turnovers. In his career he has one interception that came in his rookie year and one forced fumble in week sixteen of 2021. Interceptions are not expected in his role but forcing fumbles is something we hope to see more of going forward. He has just eight missed tackles in 130 opportunities. He a very good tackler and now it’s time to add that punch to the ball to create turnovers.
In his first full season as a starter he finished fourth on the team in sacks, fifth in tackles, tied for second in tackles for a loss and third in quarterback hits. When you read those statistics you have to be impressed and frankly he is just getting started. He is a good run defender and while he has made strides as a pass rusher he is far from a finished product.
The Steelers are hoping to put forth a team built on running the ball and defense and Highsmith is going to be a big part of that. With another offseason to prepare and perfect his plan he will have the opportunity to hit his goal of double digit sacks like teammates Watt and Heyward. I looked back at forty years of stats and I didn’t see any teams that had three players reach double digit sacks in the same season in that time period. However, Watt (14.5), Dupree (11.5) and Heyward (9) did come close in 2019.
His career is just getting started and will be fun to watch going forward. Is he ready to breakout? I think so. What do yinz say?