Steelers edge defenders could be better this year than they were in 2020

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90), linebacker Melvin Ingram II (8) and linebacker Alex Highsmith (56) Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90), linebacker Melvin Ingram II (8) and linebacker Alex Highsmith (56) Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Steelers may have lost Bud Dupree this offseason, but could Pittsburgh’s edge defender group somehow still be better in 2021? 

When the Pittsburgh Steelers lost Bud Dupree in free agency, many fans and media personnel thought this could be a massive blow to their defense. While T.J. Watt is one of the best in the league at his position, an inexperienced Alex Highsmith had some big shoes to fill and there were more than enough questions surrounding the depth of the position.

Now Dupree feels like an afterthought. So much so, in fact, that I would make a case that Pittsburgh’s edge defender group will be better this season than it was in 2020.

Bud Dupree was a good football player. The former 2015 first-round pick had finally put it all together over the past two seasons and we were starting to see great production as a result. Though an ACL injury derailed what could have been the best statistical season of his career, he will be healthy and rearing to go for the Titans in 2021.

But even with Dupree’s departure, I am very optimistic about the group of edge defenders the Steelers currently have.

Why Steelers EDGE could be better in 2021

Obviously, we would have liked to see Dupree re-sign with the team, but that just wasn’t possible. In a year with almost no cap space, it would have been unwise of Pittsburgh to try to free up $16.5 million per season for a player that was clearly second fiddle to Watt.

The Steelers didn’t just earn a third-round compensatory pick next year for the loss of Dupree. Late in the free agency process, Pittsburgh brought in three-time Pro Bowler Melvin Ingram. Though Ingram is older than Dupree and was injured last year, there’s a case to be made that he is even better than Dupree when healthy.

Before his injury last season, Ingram compiled 43.0 sacks from 2015 to 2019 (an average of 8.6 per season), according to Pro Football Reference. More importantly, Ingram has been a much more consistent player over that span. Pro Football Focus can concur, as Ingram managed an overall grade above 83.0 twice and he graded as a top-10 edge defender in the NFL in both years.

Meanwhile, Dupree topped Ingram’s overall grade just once during that span and has just 39.5 sacks in his six-year career.

However, the biggest difference this year might be the improvement we have seen from second-year pass rusher, Alex Highsmith. Despite being a former college walk-on, Highsmith has been the star of Steelers training camp this year and has carried his dominant practice sessions into the preseason.

Though Highsmith doesn’t have the same size and explosion as Dupree, he’s an incredibly smooth athlete who will probably be able to win in more ways as a pass rusher – as evidenced by the arsenal of moves we’ve witnessed from him so far.

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It could be hard to say for sure whether this edge defender unit is better than the one the Steelers had last year, but with a healthy Melvin Ingram and a potentially much-improved Alex Highsmith, this could very well be the case in 2021.