The Steelers have a big decision to make with Alex Highsmith in 2023

Alex Highsmith #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs to the field prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images)
Alex Highsmith #56 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs to the field prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images) /

Alex Highsmith is having a breakout year for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2022, but deciding on whether or not to give him a lucrative contract won’t be easy.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are soon going to have a crucial decision to make regarding the NFL’s sack leader (and no, it’s not the one we’ve been accustomed to seeing). T.J. Watt has been sidelined since Week 1 of the 2022 season with a pectoral injury, and he recently had minor knee surgery as well. In his absence, Alex Highsmith has stepped up to the plate in an effort to help fill the void… and he has not been disappointing.

Admittedly, there’s still a substantial gap between Highsmith and Watt on tape (which was to be expected). Highsmith still needs to improve his pass-rush win rate and collect pressures more consistently. However, the young edge defender currently leads the NFL with 6.5 sacks entering Week 7.

Three of these sacks came during a stunning overall defensive performance against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1, but that isn’t to take away from what he has been able to accomplish so far. Over the past five weeks without Watt and with really nobody else to offer consistent pressure, Highsmith has still been able to compile 3.5 sacks, 4 tackles for a loss, and 5 quarterback hits, via Pro Football Reference.

As a former college walk-on third-round pick by the Steelers in 2020, Pittsburgh has gotten everything they could have asked for out of him and more. However, this team has an important decision to make next offseason regarding his future.

Will the Steelers give Highsmith an extension in 2023?

Alex Highsmith is currently in his third NFL season, which means that he will be entering a contract year during the 2023 offseason. We all know that the Steelers don’t like to negotiate with players once the season starts, so if a deal comes, they will have to make it happen before the start of next season.

This is where things get a little complicated. Highsmith has obviously proven to be an excellent draft choice by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but do they give him a lucrative new deal? At his current pace, the well-rounded edge defender is on track to finish the season with roughly 18.5 sacks. This is no easy feat — especially considering the circumstances. Obviously, it’s possible that Highsmith’s sack rate starts to slow down, but even if he finishes the season with 10+ sacks, he’s still going to be in line for a big payday.

At that point, the Steelers would have to determine how much he’s worth and whether or not they can afford to have one of the most expensive edge pairings in the league with Watt and Highsmith. Based on some projected numbers from of what others in similar situations have done, We could be looking at Highsmith earning as much as $13-16 million per season. Much of this will depend on what he’s able to accomplish the rest of the way.

I can see both sides of the argument when it comes to whether the team should pay him or not. On one hand, the Steelers are already shorthanded when it comes to talent and they don’t have a lot of young players to build around. On the other, this team has already invested in their defense financially as much as any team in the league, and they need to start allocating more money and resources to the offensive side of the ball.

From a front office standpoint, the team will have more money to work with than they did when Bud Dupree was up for a new deal. My guess is that Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin try to get something done with their young pass rusher. Highsmith is an A+ character who has been pretty healthy during his career, and they no doubt love his determination and effort.

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Sadly, this potential long-term deal could come down to dollar signs. Highsmith producing sacks at this rate is great for the team, but it may make him hard for the Pittsburgh Steelers to retain him long-term as their starting edge defender is entering a contract year.