Steelers 2020 Rookie Scouting Report: Alex Highsmith
In the coming weeks, I will be summarizing the film notes from my personal pre-draft prospect scouting reports and take an in-depth look at the Steelers’ 2020 rookie class (including undrafted free agents). What are their strengths and weaknesses? Where do they fit in with the Steelers? Be sure to check out each scouting report over the next few weeks to find out my thoughts on the newest members of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Next up, Alex Highsmith.
- Name: Alex Highsmith
- Date of Birth (Age): August 7, 1997 (22)
- Hometown: Wilmington, North Carolina
- College: Charlotte
- Class: Redshirt Senior
- Position: EDGE
- College Number: 5
- Height: 6’3″
- Weight: 248 lbs
- Hands: 9 1/8″
- Arms: 33 1/8″
- Wingspan: 76 7/8″
- 40 Yard Dash: 4.7 seconds
- Bench Press: —
- Vertical Jump: 33.0″
- Broad Jump: 125.0″
- 3 Cone Drill: 7.32 seconds
- 20 Yard Shuttle: 4.31 seconds
2019 Stats: 13 games, 75 total tackles (43 solo), 21.5 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, 3 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles
Career Stats: 45 games, 185 total tackles (115 solo), 47.0 tackles for loss, 21 sacks, 5 passes defended, 4 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
- Well-documented work ethic and effort on and off of the field to improve as a player after starting at Charlotte as a walk-on
- Tremendous production while at Charlotte, consistently popped against smaller schools and stepped up against ACC and SEC competition
- One of the prominent standouts from the East-West Shrine Bowl
- Possesses great athleticism and footwork as an edge defender
- Experience with his hand in the dirt and as a stand-up defender, although best fit will be as stand-up
- Anticipates the snap with consistency and fires off of the ball in a hurry
- Active hands with great timing and placement against both the pass and the run
- Displays an explosive motor when rushing the passer
- Very developed pass rushing toolbox with a strong plan of attack for each lineman he faces
- When the outside isn’t there, he quickly counters with a strong inside move; effective with swiping their hands off and working half a man
- Developed inside swim move evident on tape
- Not afraid to use an athletic spin move to counter leverage
- Utilizes very good pad level to bend, dip, and rip underneath offensive linemen
- Not just speed rusher – he has shown the ability to utilize power on occasion
- Great closing speed when chasing down the quarterback
- Very good instincts against the run; quickly diagnoses the play, fills his lane, and looks to make the play
- Uses his size and flexibility to deploy an effective wrong arm against pulling/trapping offensive linemen
- Powerful body-to-body tackler; can deliver huge hits when tackling
- While the production was amazing, there will be concern about it coming against smaller schools
- Could stand to add some muscle to his frame (especially his lower body) in the NFL to help his functional strength, particularly when facing powerful offensive linemen one-on-one
- Doesn’t have tremendous length; could struggle early on against longer, bigger offensive tackles in the NFL
- The lack of length could prove costly when trying to set the edge against the run and then attempting to disengage
- Same issue with length appears occasionally while trying to disengage at the top of the arc when rushing the passer
- Can get square when rushing the passer, exposing his chest as a prime striking target
- His game is more “splash/speed” than “power” at this point
- A stronger anchor could help at the POA/setting the edge
- Length forces a smaller tackle radius, sometimes struggling with tackles away from his body
Don’t let the small school status fool you: Alex Highsmith is an exciting prospect to watch. Fans will knock him for playing at UNC-Charlotte but when you turn on the tape, you see a football player that checks off so many boxes that you want with an EDGE defender in the NFL. Starting his career as a walk-on with a young Charlotte football program, Highsmith relentlessly worked his butt off to become a two-time first team All-Conference USA selection and a third team AP All-American selection in 2019. He parlayed these accolades from his production into an invitation to the East-West Shrine Bowl, where he stood out against the competition that was gathered in the annual all-star game. His relentless work ethic is also very evident on the field, where Highsmith’s motor was never outmatched and constantly put him around the football to make a play as he works from the snap through the whistle.
When looking at Highsmith as a football player, one thing instantly stands out: his athleticism. At 6’3″ 248 pounds, Highsmith isn’t a massive defensive player but makes up for that with fancy footwork and great speed and quickness to explode off of the line of scrimmage at the snap. This quickness comes in handy when you see him perfectly time up the snap count, where he is very good at getting to his landmark before offensive linemen have a chance to react to him.
At the snap, his hands are aggressive and instinctive by using them to effectively time up his strikes, work leverage on half-a-man, and ultimately attempt to disengage and make the play. Once his hands get going, Highsmith deploys a very developed pass rushing toolbox, something that you don’t always see from small school pass rushers. He is very good at beating tackles off of the edge before dipping his hips and shoulder pads and ripping up through to turn the corner and chase down the quarterback with ferocious closing speed. He doesn’t give up there, however, using a potent inside counter move when the outside rush isn’t there.
Once he senses that the offensive tackle is off-balance or working quickly to beat the outside speed, he plants his foot to counter inside while using his hands and arms to swipe the offensive lineman’s hands off of him, effectively out-leveraging the lineman. This isn’t his only inside counter move, as he has also used a spin move to quickly work back inside without giving up any of his momentum. Highsmith is able to accomplish all oft his because of his elite pad level, allowing himself to work beyond his lack of top tier length. While he didn’t do it as often, this pad level was crucial for him converting his speed rush into more of a power/bull rush against offensive linemen, where he was able to get underneath them and work them back into the backfield.
Against the run, Highsmith showed very good instincts by consistently knowing his role, diagnosing the play, attacking his gap/filling his lane, and looking to move down the line to make the play. When he would be put up against pulling or trapping offensive linemen, Highsmith’s pad level and flexibility was useful again, coming underneath the puller by quickly and effectively wrong arming the lineman and disrupting the play. More often than not, Highsmith would then deliver a massive full body tackle to bury the runner for a tackle for a loss and filling up his stat sheets.
There is a lot to love about Highsmith’s game and upside, but he doesn’t come without some reservations in the short term. More than anything, people will be concerned with his (albeit amazing) production against smaller schools. This doesn’t raise as many red flags for me, considering his performances against Clemson and Tennessee and in the East-West Shrine Bowl. Regardless, it is still a massive part of his background that is worth considering when viewing his elite production in college.
In the NFL, Highsmith will be forced into facing bigger, longer offensive tackles than what he consistently faced in college, which could make adding some increased functional strength to his frame imperative to finding consistent success as a defender, but that will come in time as many players often face this issue. One issue that can’t really be changed is his lack of elite length. He did a solid job of utilizing his strengths to work around this in college but issues with length can often show up while looking to gain separation, particularly when trying to set the edge against the run and then disengaging to make a play.
The same thing can be said when you are at the top of the arc in your pass rush and a lengthy offensive tackle has you locked out. This can become even more problematic when you get square and show your full chest during your pass rush, something Highsmith sometimes did on the reps he lost in college. Highsmith was able to work through this at Charlotte because of his quick, aggressive hands and low pad level but bigger, stronger NFL tackles might have an easier time with combatting this early on in his career. In my eyes, this makes it no surprise that his game has been more about splash and speed than it has been power at this point in his development and will likely be the primary focus early on in his career.
Fit with the Steelers
The Steelers have a perennial Defensive Player of the Year contender in T.J. Watt and used the franchise tag on Bud Dupree for the 2020 season. Dupree’s future in Pittsburgh beyond this season is up in the air but even if the Steelers strike a long-term deal with Dupree, they needed to upgrade their depth at EDGE. Highsmith is an exciting high-ceiling/high-upside EDGE defender who I believe will have more of an impact as a rookie than one might expect.
The obvious early route to playing time will be on special teams, where Highsmith will almost definitely contribute on both return and both coverage units as a rookie, where his athleticism, motor, and aggression can be put on full display while he acclimates to the defense. Since the Steelers are set with their starters at the position, there won’t be as much pressure on Highsmith to come in and contribute on defense right away. I think this is important because while I believe Highsmith can and will develop into a solid three-down defender, I think adding additional lower body strength will help improve his anchor against the run and his already dangerous explosion.
As a rookie, I think the Steelers could really benefit from his speed, motor, flexibility, and pass rushing tools to find ways to get him experience on obvious passing downs. I also think that he has the athleticism to drop into coverage when needed, increasing his value on these downs early on in his career.
I thoroughly enjoyed breaking down the tape with Highsmith. The only major knock I have against him is his length, but I give him a tremendous amount of credit for how he was able to overcome this while he was at Charlotte by never giving up on plays, using his flexible 6’3″ body to gain natural leverage underneath offensive linemen, and the instincts and football IQ to know how to beat his opponent on each snap.
His blend of anticipation and quickness off of the ball, his very developed pass rushing moves, and a never-ending motor to outwork everyone make him a guy that not only provides quality depth in the short-term, but gives you a potential starter down the road. Highsmith has all the traits and upside to flourish with NFL coaching and experience. I am excited to see how he acclimates and follow his development as a football player, but one thing is for certain.
Not many guys will outwork Highsmith on his way to becoming the best football player he can become.