Steelers EDGE Alex Highsmith listed among NFL’s most underappreciated players
By Tommy Jaggi
Steelers edge defender Alex Highsmith had a good rookie season, but here’s why he landed on a list of the NFL’s most underappreciated players.
It was hard to ask more out of a third-round rookie than what we received with Alex Highsmith in 2020. The former Charlotte walk-on was a key rotational edge defender for the Steelers – giving Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt some much-needed breaks. However, when Dupree went down with a season-ending ACL tear, it was Highsmith who stepped up big.
Fans who only look at the box score wouldn’t understand the impact a player like Highsmith made to the team last year. Though he earned 437 defensive snaps as a rookie and 5 starts, he managed just 2.0 sacks and 5 tackles for a loss. However, statistical production doesn’t tell the whole tale.
Recently, NFL.com’s Cynthia Frelund wrote an article about the most underappreciated players in the AFC – choosing a representative from each team. For the Steelers, it was Alex Highsmith. Here’s what Frelund had to say:
"In his rookie season, the third-rounder made a tackle on nearly 10 percent of his snaps (9.9 percent tackle rate). This was the second-highest rate among edge defenders last season (min. 400 snaps). While I don’t expect his rate to stay that high — with the departure of Bud Dupree, he’ll play a higher volume of snaps and have a more visible role that will command more attention — but I do expect big things to continue. The two main reasons for that: 1) In terms of his speed in the first 3 yards traveled, Highsmith ranked in the top 10 percent in 2020; and 2) his hips stayed facing the quarterback even after contact at a rate in the top 15 percent (this helps predict recovery and pursuit of pressure)."
Why Highsmith was so important for Steelers
On a per-snap basis, Highsmith did a pretty good job of bringing down the ball-carrier – earning 48 tackles on the season. However, where he made the greatest impact was in his ability to get after the quarterback. This is rare for a rookie – especially one with a mid-round draft status attached to his name.
According to Pro Football References advanced statistics, Highsmith recorded 12 pressures and 6 quarterbacks hits. In addition, he had a remarkably low missed tackle rate of just 4.0 percent. Highsmith was also excellent in coverage. After being targeted 9 times, the rookie outside linebacker allowed just 57 yards (6.3 yards per attempt) and intercepted the ball. This resulted in allowing just a 35.2 passer rating.
Pro Football Focus would agree that Highsmith was impressive. His impressive overall grade of 72.9 ranked 24th out of all qualifying edge defenders. In comparison, the significantly more productive Bud Dupree ranked 75th out of 108 qualifying players with an overall grade of just 60.2.
The production certainly doesn’t mean everything, and Alex Highsmith showed that last year. Playing across from a player like T.J. Watt, it’s always going to be hard to get noticed. However, this kid was thoroughly impressive last season.
Many casual Steelers fans may have heard the name, but haven’t yet appreciated the impact Alex Highsmith made on this football team as a rookie. I’m willing to bet that he won’t fly under the radar for long. Now in a full-time role, Highsmith could really open eyes with a big season in 2021.