Though the NFL is still in the midst of its 2023 offseason, it’s never too early to look ahead to the next offseason.
After losing key defensive piece Cameron Sutton in free agency this offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers could be in line to lose another impact defensive player next offseason in outside linebacker Alex Highsmith.
While the Steelers and Highsmith are expected to get a lucrative contract extension done this summer, the 2020 third-round draft pick out Charlotte is going into the final year of his rookie deal. In 2022, the fourth-year outside linebacker had a career year and looks to have taken the next step in his career.
Entering his contract year, Highsmith was ranked as one of the top impact defenders set to hit free agency next offseason by ESPN’s Matt Bowen — a former NFL defensive back — Friday, alongside the likes of Kansas City cornerback L’Jarius Snead, Green Bay outside linebacker Rashan Gary, Dallas cornerback Trevon Diggs, New York Giants defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, and Kansas City defensive tackle Chris Jones.
“Highsmith’s 14.5 sacks in 2022 were a career-high and ranked sixth in the NFL, and he also added five forced fumbles and 42 pressures. He’s a crafty edge rusher with the footwork to set up blockers and a deep toolbox of countermoves,” Bowen writes while highlighting Highsmith as one of the top impact defenders set to hit free agency. “Highsmith is an easy fit for a 3-4 scheme, and he could cash out after another year of production in Pittsburgh.”
Highsmith was simply dominant throughout the 2022 season.
He got off to a fast start with three sacks in the season opener at Cincinnati in an overtime win. He found more consistency throughout the year. In past years, his sacks seemingly came in bunches, two at a time, such as in Week One against the Bengals. However, without T.J. Watt opposite him for seven games, Highsmith found that consistency at the right time for the Steelers.
Highsmith had sacks in 10 different games last season on his way to leading the Steelers in that category. His ability to take the football away has also been overlooked and he forced a forced fumble in five games. Only Philadelphia’s Hassan Reddick had as many forced fumbles as Highsmith did last season.
Overall, Highsmith has steady play 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, rarely coming off the field. He played 88.2% of the defense’s snaps this past season, an every-down player counted on all the more with Watt sidelined. That percentage was second-highest of any DE/EDGE rusher all season, trailing only the Raiders’ Maxx Crosby, who played a whopping 96.3% of his defense’s snaps.
With the Steelers aiming to get an extension done with Highsmith this summer, a new deal with the developing pass rusher could see him land between $15 million and $17.25 million, as Dave Bryan laid out in a piece looking at how the other top pass rushers in the NFL are paid.
Based on how the Steelers want to play defensively, Highsmith is an invaluable piece across from T.J. Watt and next to Cameron Heyward.