Steelers need to be careful with a looming contract extension for Alex Highsmith

Steelers, Alex Highsmith
Steelers, Alex Highsmith / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I have yet to come across a Pittsburgh Steelers fan who doesn't like Alex Highsmith. The former college walk-on and third-round draft pick has grossly exceeded all expectations that we had for him at this point, and his football mentality and work ethic are traits that every coach desires.

As a result of his hard work and determination, Highsmith went from being an unranked high-school recruit to a highlight reel player at a small non-Power 5 college to an uber-productive pass rusher in the NFL. In his most recent season with the Steelers in 2022, Highsmith recorded 63 tackles, 14.5 sacks, 12 tackles for a loss, and 5 forced fumbles, via ESPN stats.

Now, as he continues to climb the ladder of success, Highsmith is seeking a new contract with Pittsburgh... and it's not going to come cheap.

The former third-rounder is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is set to have a base salary of just over $2.7 million for the 2023 season, per Over the Cap. His agent knows that there's plenty of risk involved in entering the season without a contract, and both parties will be working to get something done.

Though I would like to see Highsmith remain in Pittsburgh as much as the next person, this contract isn't as cut and dry as you might think, and there are plenty of risks involved on the part of the Steelers.

Alex Highsmith contract extension comes with risks

I know this sounds like common sense. There are always risks involved when you pay players large sums of money. Take T.J. Watt's contract, for example, he's been injured often since inking his deal in 2021. However, a contract extension with Alex Highsmith includes a number of factors that must be considered.

First of all, I love the fact that Highsmith has been mostly healthy throughout his first three seasons. During his professional career, he missed just one game in Week 3 of 2021 but has otherwise started 33 games over the past two years. His health isn't what concerns me.

Highsmith is going to make a lot of money based on the year he had in 2022, but what if his production is not repeatable? This was a player who saw the vast majority of his production come when T.J. Watt was healthy and able to line up across from him (11.0 of his 14.5 sacks came when Watt played).

Though Watt is going to be there, we would have liked to see a play that could take charge and be more dominant when he was missing his counterpart. While I think that Highsmith deserves a big payday, I don't think he was quite as good as his raw stats from 2022 would indicate.

Earning 14.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles is outstanding, but I'm certainly not willing to call him one of the best in the NFL at his position. Just because his raw numbers outproduced players like Maxx Crosby and Micah Parsons doesn't make him a better player.

Though he's not going to reset the market, I do fear that Highsmith could get overpaid in his new contract extension based on his production from 2022. His agent will use this as a talking point and a baseline of what the new extension needs to look like.

Obviously, I'm glad that Highsmith was as productive as he proved to be last year. However, I think it's very probable that his stats come back down to earth in 2023. From a pressure and pass rush win rate standpoint, Highsmith didn't get after the quarterback frequently enough to earn one of the biggest contracts in the league among edge defenders.

Spotrac has Highsmith's new annual earnings estimated at $13.9 million per year, but I think his new extension will come in north of this number -- perhaps even in the $15-16 per year range. The details matter here, and perhaps the Steelers can get away with not handing him guaranteed money if he has a high figure.

Having said all of that, I think keeping Alex Highsmith in Pittsburgh is the right choice. It's much better than the alternative of letting a pass rusher walk away during the prime of his career in free agency in 2024.

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Still, the Steelers need to hope that his 2022 season wasn't a fluke and that he can continue to be a force at getting after the quarterback if they are willing to invest this much money at the edge position. T.J. Watt is the highest-paid edge rusher in the NFL, in terms of yearly contract value. With a Highsmith extension, the Steelers could be looking at upwards of $42 million per season between those two players. It's something worth thinking about.