Entering 2022, Alex Highsmith made it clear he wanted to reach double-digit sacks. He did a lot more than that. By year’s end, he broke out for a career-high 14.5 of them, chipping in a league-tying five forced fumbles along the way. It made him the easy choice for Pro Football Focus’ surprise Steeler of the year. In explaining why, PFF’s Marcus Mosher writes:
“Highsmith finished the 2022 season with 15 sacks and 55 pressures, both of which were career highs. Despite not having T.J. Watt opposite of him for a big chunk of the season, Highsmith was able to be productive for the Steelers. Going into the final year of his rookie contract, he should be in for a big payday from the Steelers.”
Highsmith got off to a fast start with three sacks in the season opener. He found more consistency throughout the year. In pasts years, his sacks seemingly came in bunches, two at a time, and Week One reinforced the idea. But Highsmith had sacks in ten different games this season on his way to leading the Steelers. His ability to take the football away has also been overlooked with a forced fumble in five games. Only Philadelphia’s Hassan Reddick had as many as Highsmith did this season.
Overall, Highsmith has steady player in all phases. Pass rush, run defense, and the little bit of coverage Steelers’ EDGE rushers are asked to do. He was healthy and available and crucially rarely came off the field. He played 88.2% of the defense’s snaps this season, an everydown player counted on all the more with T.J. Watt sidelined. That percentage was second-highest of any DE/EDGE rusher all season, only trailing the Raiders’ Maxx Crosby who played a whopping 96.3% of his defense’s snaps.
As PFF hints, Highsmith can parlay his season into a lucrative contract extension. He’ll be at the top of the Steelers’ to-do list this summer. Under new GM Omar Khan, the team handed out extensions earlier than they did under Kevin Colbert, FS Minkah Fitzpatrick inked in June and WR Diontae Johnson signed during training camp as opposed to right before the season began. It’s unclear exactly what Highsmith will net but it won’t be cheap and could touch $20 million per year. A long-term deal with him would lock Highsmith up along Watt for the next several seasons as the anchor’s of Pittsburgh’s pass rush.
Elsewhere in the PFF article, Cam Heyward graded as the team’s best player. Around the AFC North, the biggest surprises were Baltimore S Kyle Hamilton, Cincinnati LB Germaine Pratt, and Cleveland CB Martin Emerson.