Imagine being a small-school product for a university that hasn’t even had a football program very long. Imagine being a draftable talent with an ascending collegiate career whose draft stock depended on having a great offseason. Now imagine a global pandemic hits as you’re coming out and blows up most of your plans.
We can never know what might have happened in the draft had Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith not at least had the opportunity to go to the NFL Scouting Combine in 2020. His performance there definitely put him on many people’s radar and elevated him to a potential day-two prospect.
But the rest of the offseason shut down after that with COVID-19 populating the country soon after. He didn’t get to have a Pro Day at Charlotte, which frustrated him because, as he recently wrote for the team’s website, he thought he could have bettered his 40 time.
He also says he believes he was scheduled for a pre-draft visit for the Steelers and wished it would have happened, because all they got was Zoom meetings. But all’s well that ends well, as they say. It’s heading in that direction, and that’s how it started on draft day for him as well.
“At the end of the day, it all worked out. I ended up where I wanted to be”, he wrote. “The Steelers were one of the teams that I wanted to go to, knowing the outside linebackers have thrived here and just the history of them. Definitely wanted to visit some of those teams. But like I said, it all worked out”.
Ultimately drafted 102nd overall as a compensatory selection, Highsmith has grown significantly in each of his first three seasons in the league and is poised for a sizeable long-term contract extension later this year.
A 17-game starter in 2022, he put up 14.5 sacks last season across 941 defensive snaps along with 63 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 20 quarterback hits—oh, and a league-leading five forced fumbles. He was listed as an alternate for the Pro Bowl, for some inexplicable reason T.J. Watt having gotten the honors over him.
Highsmith’s presence, though, was crucial last season with Watt missing an extended period of time and then playing the rest of the season at less than 100 percent. While the team wasn’t very good at all during the time Watt missed, it certainly wasn’t due to Highsmith’s play. He was one of the few players barely keeping the team afloat during that time.
Now entering his fourth season, and the final year of his rookie contract, this is the time that teams get extensions done. While they did not manage a long-term deal for his successor, Bud Dupree, the Steelers are not opposed to paying two edge rushers. They did so with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley a little over a decade ago, and they’ll likely do it again with Watt and Highsmith. You pay money where the talent is.