The Steelers have never been a team that was known for taking small-school talent early, but some recent success has them shifting their draft tendencies.
If you’ve been following the Steelers closely over the years, it’s not hard to pick up on some of Pittsburgh’s draft trends. Every team has certain things they look for when evaluating talent. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert, for example, typically love athletic, productive underclassmen for Power 5 schools.
While big-school players are something the Steelers have typically targeted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft, that trend has shifted in recent years – specifically in the third round.
Since 2016, Pittsburgh has now pressed their luck with three productive small school players in round three. Prior to selecting Javon Hargrave in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Steelers have stuck with Power 5 players in 10 of their previous 12 third-round selections.
The success of Hargrave may have started the Steelers on a small-school kick, but so far it has worked out pretty well for them. Though Hargrave’s second contract didn’t come with Pittsburgh, the former South Carolina State product is widely considered one of the best picks of the third round in 2016.
In 2019, the Steelers looked for small-school talent in the third round yet again with the addition of Toledo wide receiver, Diontae Johnson. Though many considered the pick a reach at the time, Johnson already outplayed his draft status as a rookie, and there are really high hopes for what he will bring to the organization in the future.
For the third time in the past five years, Pittsburgh drafted a small school player in round three in 2020: Charlotte edge defender, Alex Highsmith.
Highsmith isn’t the biggest or most athletic player on the football field, but he possesses a number of traits the Steelers covet. For starters, he’s got a relentless work ethic as a former college walk-on to third-round pick in the NFL. Highsmith also has an arsenal of pass rush moves at his disposal, which helped him earn outrageous production in 2019 (75 tackles, 21.5 tackles for a loss, 15.0 sacks).
Highsmith isn’t guaranteed to be a successful player for the Steelers, but it’s not hard to figure out why they selected him over dozens of viable options in the third round. Pittsburgh has had a lot of success with small-school players as of late, and Highsmith has a chance to be the next in line on that list.
Pittsburgh managed to retain Bud Dupree for the 2020 season, but his future with the team beyond this season is up in the air (some might even say doubtful). Highsmith will compete for the primary backup outside linebacker spot as a rookie and could have a chance to take over as a starter in year two if everything goes according to plan.
This is now the third time in five years the Steelers have rolled the dice with a small-school player and it has paid off for them. Let’s hope the same happens with the addition of Alex Highsmith.