Alex Highsmith extension should be Steelers top offseason priority

With the NFL Combine underway, and free agency and the NFL Draft around the corner, there’s lots of chatter about what teams will do to improve their chances of being a Super Bowl contender in 2023. The Pittsburgh Steelers are no stranger to conjecture, as everything from adding another quarterback, to stiffening up both sides of the line have been front-and-center of the offseason attention given by the media.

However, one name has not been mentioned, almost at all: Alex Highsmith.

In fact, Highsmith has not only been overlooked for his accomplishments over the last two seasons, but how he may also factor into the Steelers immediate future.

The Steelers current counterpart to outside linebacker T.J. Watt on the other side of the defensive formation, Highsmith was drafted in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of Charlotte: a newer NCAA FBS program that was so new, it may have caused teams to overlook their star pass rusher. (Perhaps they didn’t scroll through the occasional essayfactory reviews at and get some help front time to time?)

Embed from Getty Images

Highsmith was brought aboard right as the Steelers exercised their rarely used franchise tag designation on Bud Dupree, who was prepared to enter free agency after five seasons in Pittsburgh.

Dupree had just completed a career-setting 2019 season in which he had 11.5 sacks, but the organization was well aware they would not be able to afford to keep him beyond 2020. The tag paid Dupree in the neighborhood of $16 million, and with a tight salary cap ahead, then general manager Kevin Colbert pulled the trigger on drafting his potential replacement.

What the team didn’t know then, is Dupree would be placed on injured reserve, missing the final five games of his Steelers career and opening the door for Highsmith, who would grab the baton and exceed his predecessor’s play.

The one knock on Dupree up until his 11.5 sack season in 2019 is that he couldn’t stay healthy, and that he was a borderline first round “bust”, having failed to achieve a double-digit sack season prior. Highsmith, on the other hand, has been steady in his first three seasons with the Steelers:

  • 2020: 16 games played, 5 starts, 48 combined tackles (30 solo, 18 assisted), 2 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, 5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, and 1 pass defensed.
  • 2021: 16 games played, 16 starts, 74 combined tackles (46 solo, 28 assisted), 6 sacks, 15 quarterback hits, 15 tackles for loss, and 1 forced fumble.
  • 2020: 17 games played, 17 starts, 63 combined tackles (38 solo, 25 assisted), 14.5 sacks, 20 quarterback hits, 12 tackles for loss, 1 pass defensed, and 5 forced fumbles.

Embed from Getty Images

The reason Highsmith’s name should be discussed more isn’t just his stats, rather, he’s entering the final year of his rookie contract. Without elaborating, Highsmith’s numbers blow away those of Dupree, who landed a huge five-year, $82.5 million contract with the Tennessee Titans in 2021.

There was a lot of criticism towards the Steelers not making inroads to re-signing Dupree, but perhaps they felt he wasn’t worth breaking the bank on. However, Highsmith is a player they may want to get ahead of the game with and extend early – as early as this offseason – before he starts to get a sniff of free agency.

Aside from quarterbacks, the guys who get after them are the next most sought after, landing big money deals. T.J. Watt is a prime example, setting the market with highest-paid edge rusher contract back in 2021, also his final year of his rookie deal.

Many will cite Watt’s contract as to why the Steelers won’t be able to afford Highsmith too, but that’s a fallacy as to how new Steelers GM Omar Khan has managed the cap with Colbert in the past, where the team has had at least two, if not three of their players on the defensive front in their top five paid category of the roster.

Previously, those names included Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. With the latter now retired, and the former slowly heading in that direction, the Steelers can capitalize on not having as much money tied up in their quarterback now. (Kenny Pickett is on a cheaper rookie deal as opposed to the $40 million cap hit of Ben Roethlisberger entering 2021.)

Embed from Getty Images

This opens the possibility of paying Highsmith, as the Steelers can start the new contract now and spread it over several years before Pickett may land his own milestone money deal.

However, Heyward and Tuitt aren’t the only examples of the Steelers making sure they have premium edge rushers and defensive ends on the depth chart, as the 2010’s saw James Harrison making a solid buck while LaMarr Woodley landed the richest defensive player contract in team history, for that time.

Pittsburgh also had an older Casey Hampton who would soon step away, plus Aaron Smith – both Pro Bowl to All-Pro caliber players who were also earning nice paychecks for their efforts.

You can go as far back as Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd as another tandem who the Steelers valued. When Greene left Pittsburgh, he was replaced by Jason Gildon, who was drafted and retained until Lloyd too was replaced, by Joey Porter. And then Porter to Harrison, and so forth. (Not perfectly in sync, mind you, but you get the drift: Watt entering year five follows the same cadence as Highsmith being drafted and becoming a starter as those who came before him.)

Embed from Getty Images

This past season, Highsmith finished sixth in the league with 14.5 sacks – a team best. Since replacing Melvin Ingram in Week 6 of 2021, Highsmith has had 20.5 sacks in 29 games.

That’s why it makes sense for the Steelers to start talks with Highsmith now, instead of later. Getting ahead of inflation and making sure they keep their homegrown stars in-house should be a priority. Hopefully, Omar Khan is already drawing up potential paperwork – for the rest, you can count on writers at who will take care of your school performance while you follow the wild NFL offseason and see where free agency and the draft takes us!

Suggested articles from our sponsors