Now in the role of defensive coordinator, it is more clearly in the purview of Teryl Austin to get the maximum amount of productivity of everybody on the defense, not just the secondary, which was his primary charge in his previous role. That includes the edge rushers, among them third-year Alex Highsmith, entering his second season as a full-time starter.
The 2020 third-round pick talked to reporters recently about how he is still looking to turn the corner and elevate his game, including in terms of sheer production. He finished the 2021 season with six sacks, but he believes he can easily double that number.
So, too, does Austin, and they both have a ready example to work from in Bud Dupree. “Bud was a six or seven sack guy for a while, then he turned a corner”, he said on Wednesday during minicamp, according to Tim Benz, reporting for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in an article published yesterday.
Dupree was a first-round draft choice out of Kentucky in 2015. He never recorded more than six sacks during his first four seasons in the NFL, although health played a role in that—but not predominantly so. While he did log many games, he also played through significant injuries.
But it was a combination of health, development, and the growing relationship that he had with T.J. Watt that saw him transform himself to a Pro Bowl-caliber talent by 2019. He hit the 11.5-sack mark that year, and was well on his way to a second straight high-quality season when he tore his ACL, finishing with eight sacks in 11 games played.
In spite of his serious injury, the body of work that he put together over the previous two seasons was enough for the Tennessee Titans to sign him to one of the relative handful of major contracts during the 2021 offseason, which was markedly colored by the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that saw the salary cap plummet and strain teams’ resources.
Highsmith is still another year out from free agency after this next one, only going into year three, but he’s not thinking about his next big payday when he’s talking about wanting to improve his game. He’s a football lifer and genuinely wants to excel at his craft. And Austin believes he has it in there.
“He started finishing the plays, then he (was) a double-digit sack guy”, he said of Dupree. “The same could be said for Alex. He has got the potential to do that”. He added, “He’s got to do a better job, in his mind, of finishing and getting a guy on the ground. But he does a good job of rushing, and he does a good job of setting the edge. That’s not an unreasonable goal for him”.
It may be worth noting that health also influenced Highsmith’s second season. After having a stellar offseason in which he was regarded as one of the Steelers’ best-looking players in training camp and the preseason, he suffered a groin injury leading up to the season opener. One can only wonders how much that affected him, for how long, but he did play better and more freely in the second half of the year.