Rookie Impact: Alex Highsmith's Potential Rests Within Future
Rookie impact is a series previewing each Pittsburgh Steelers draftee and their potential impact for 2020 and beyond. For second-round pick Chase Claypool's potential impact, click here. We continue our series with outside linebacker Alex Highsmith.
Player: Alex Highsmith
Position: Outside Linebacker
Drafted: Round 3, Pick 102
Similar to the Chase Claypool pick, not many pegged the Pittsburgh Steelers to select Charlotte's Alex Highsmith at the tail end of the third-round. With two solidified starting outside linebackers in Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, Highsmith's impact in 2020 may not be extensive should Dupree/Watt stay healthy. Looking past this season, however, Highsmith's impact may be needed. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert sees the long-term picture when it comes to Highsmith.
"We all think this kid isn’t anywhere near where he might be somewhere down the road” said Colbert. Head coach Mike Tomlin shared the same sentiment:
"You know, so much of it is predicated on rush and the ability to rush" said Tomlin. "So, you see those things obviously when we watch his defensive end tape. The rest of the things you can glean just in terms of just evaluating the pedigree from at least an aptitude standpoint and some of the drills that are conducted in situations like in Indy. We were completely comfortable with his level of pedigree, in terms of his ability to move and move in space, and the rest is just teaching and learning.”
With Highsmith's arrival in Pittsburgh, let's evaluate his impact for the upcoming season, and potentially beyond:
In terms of immediate impact, Highsmith looks to make the most noise on special teams. As alluded to in the previous Chase Claypool impact piece, a Tomlin-coached team will always have rookies contribute on special teams in some form or fashion. With Anthony Chickillo gone, Highsmith looks to aid in replacing the 219 special teams snaps Chickillo leaves behind.
On the defensive side of the ball, Highsmith adds a valued rotational piece at the outside linebacker position. Chickillo played roughly 13% of defensive snaps as a filler for Watt/Dupree, and if that is any indication of Highsmith's role in 2020, Highsmith appears to be limited barring any injuries.
For his rookie season, it appears as if Highsmith will get the most opportunity as a special teams player. Should Dupree and Watt remain healthy, Highsmith will see minimal action as an outside linebacker this season.
With two starting caliber players at both outside linebacker positions, it's very apparent that the selection of Highsmith was more of a chess move by the organization, setting themselves up for the future. Colbert acknowledges this, and so does Tomlin.
Simply put, Highsmith knows how to get to the passer.
As Colbert previously mentioned, Highsmith is believed to have his best days of football ahead. Highsmith was primarily used as a defensive end at Charlotte, yet displayed on tape many times the ability to stand up and rush the passer in a more conventional 3-4 linebacker role. Highsmith has the ability/athleticism to drop into coverage, yet Charlotte rarely utilized him in that role.
With Watt's future in Pittsburgh expected to continue for years to come, Highsmith's projection for the future is dependent on the (expensive) heels of Dupree. Dupree, who is slated to play on the franchise tag in 2020, is looking for quite the payday in the coming offseason. Should the Steelers like what they see out of Highsmith, the decision on Dupree staying/leaving becomes much easier.
Highsmith's initial skill-set as a pass-rusher includes a great initial explosiveness, and a variety of power/finesse moves to get to the ball-carrier. Highsmith currently sits as a project for Pittsburgh, but think of him as a project made by a parent rather than a child. It's fairly polished, and very likely to grade well.
There's a lot to like about Highsmith in black and gold. If Highsmith is able to mantain his prowess and urgency in getting to the quarterback while also proving capable of dropping into pass-coverage on a consistent basis, he very well projects to be a starting outside linebacker in the NFL. While this season may be limited, you don't draft a player on day two of the NFL Draft simply to play special teams and become a rotational player.
Will Dupree stick around past 2020? Is there a nightmare scenario where Watt does not stick around down the road? Questions like those remain to be answered. However, Pittsburgh's newest third-round pick is expected to have a bright future despite a rookie campaign that's expected to be minimal in terms of action.