A 2020 third-round pick, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith has exceeded expectations, securing the starting job opposite linebacker T.J. Watt. Highsmith capitalized on his 2020 rookie-season flashes to have a strong 2021. As such, there are high expectations for him in 2022, as new Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin highlights in an interview on DVE Radio.
“I think so, because you watched him his first year,” Austin stated regarding Highsmith potentially reaching double-digit sacks in 2022. “I think he had two sacks [as a rookie in 2020] and you know, he missed the number, and then last year I think he was in the six or seven neighborhood and he missed the number, but it was, you know, he was able to finish a little bit better. I think he’ll continue to develop and grow and be a better finisher.
“So, I think it’s absolutely within the cards. And especially when you have that other guy on the other side rushing. You know, that leaves you more opportunities and he’s a great worker.”
If Highsmith’s career trajectory were to be simplified to sack numbers, double-digit sacks is a reasonable third-year expectation. Highsmith will play alongside defensive tackle Cameron Heyward and the aforementioned Watt, both of whom will likely often be double-teamed throughout the 2022 season. As such, Highsmith will have many one-on-one opportunities against offensive tackles to capitalize on and rush the opposing quarterback. It appears that the team’s confidence in Highsmith stretches far beyond Austin, as the team did not address the outside linebacker position in the 2022 NFL Draft, signifying full confidence in his role as a starter.
The significance of having an above-average pass-rusher opposite Watt for the defense to account for cannot be understated. For perspective, the last time the Steelers had this was in now former outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who Highsmith developed under in 2020 as a rookie. The Steelers’ 2019 defense, which saw Dupree and Watt play the full season together, ranked first in yards-per-play allowed and third in pass defense. Further capturing the essence of an elite defense towards the team’s success, the 2019 Steelers’ defense almost single-handily kept an offense with Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph rotating at Quarterback in playoff contention for much of the season. In a 2022 season with all kinds of offensive uncertainty, an elite and improved pass rush is a requisite for the Steelers’ success on many levels.
At 25 years old, Highsmith has a chance to blossom into an above-average player these coming few seasons. Not to mention, Highsmith’s rookie contract expires in 2024. He’ll certainly be looking for an extension and perhaps one as early as next offseason. A double-digit sack season in 2022 has a great bearing on this, and Highsmith may just earn himself a big-pay day from the Steelers and a chance to be Watt’s sidekick for several years to come.