Alex Highsmith took a nice step forward throughout the 2021 season, which happened to be his first full season as a starter.
Now, on the cusp of his second full season as a starter and third season in the NFL overall, Highsmith appears poised to break out in a big way opposite reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winner T.J. Watt.
The Draft Network certainly seems to believe so, as writer Ryan Fowler highlighted Highsmith as his breakout player for 2022, citing his improved pass rusher repertoire, as well as his added strength as a run defender, developing into a solid complimentary piece on the Steelers’ defense opposite Watt.
“An outstanding run defender, and an astoundingly intelligent athlete when asked to roam back and work in space, Highsmith checks a ton of boxes for [Mike] Tomlin as both a talent to trust and someone who has all the clubs in the bag to blossom into an above-average edge defender with the necessary skill development,” Fowler writes. “Under the long-tenured head coach and a defensive coaching staff that includes newly hired coordinator Teryl Austin and senior defensive assistant Brian Flores, the atmosphere to thrive has never been better for Highsmith. I expect year three for Alex Highsmith to serve as a breakout campaign with his biggest workload yet to come.”
Highsmith is certainly in an ideal situation overall. It’s hard to argue against that, especially when Watt is lined up on the other side and draws double and triple teams as protection slides his way, not to mention All-Pro Cam Heyward alongside him, drawing attention in his own right.
With added attention to Watt after his record-tying season in 2021, Highsmith has to take another step forward as a pass rusher. He did that in 2021, doubling and tripling his rookie season numbers by recording 6.0 sacks and 15 quarterback hits. He has already stated he is eyeing 10-12 sacks in 2022, so if he can get to that number, increase his overall pressure rate and continue to play well against the run, the Steelers’ front seven will be that much more formidable for opposing offenses to deal with.
That, in turn, should help the run defense overall, and create turnovers in the secondary as quarterbacks are forced to get rid of the football faster, and under more duress. With a suffocating defense and a ball-control heavy offense leaning on the run game, the Steelers should find themselves right back in the playoff picture once again.
And then, maybe Highsmith becomes a big name outside the city of Pittsburgh for his play on the field.