Prior to a pectoral injury in 2022 that landed him on injured reserve for the first half of the season, T.J. Watt was on a historic pace in terms of sack production. This came after a year in which he tied Michael Strahan for the all-time single-season sack record and earned Defensive Player of the Year honors. Despite his injury last year, the Pittsburgh Steelers star is still on a Hall of Fame pace.
Watt is third in sacks over his first six NFL seasons dating all the way back to 1982. He trails only Reggie White and DeMarcus Ware in this department, per Statmuse. His 77.5 sacks over this span place him just ahead of his brother and future first-ballot Hall of Famer, J.J. Watt.
Recently, Next Gen Stats released their list of the top 10 disruptors from the 2022 season, and a Steelers pass rusher made the cut... but it wasn't T.J. Watt.
Watt has been the face of the franchise over the past few seasons and he's no stranger to impressive accolades. However, this time it's his running mate, Alex Highsmith, who is recognized on the top 10 list. Highsmith had a number of high-quality sacks in 2022 in which he effortlessly found his way to the quarterback.
In addition to recording an impressive 14.5 sacks, Highsmith managed 63 quarterback pressures, a 13.8 percent win rate, and 34 hurries, per NFL.com. His blend of speed, power, and technique helped the young pass rusher to a breakout season last year (that and his wicked spin move).
Can Highsmith keep up the pace for the Steelers?
If T.J. Watt is healthy, it's still very safe to assume that he will be the more productive and better overall player. But don't let that take away from the quality of player that Alex Highsmith is for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
After a breakout year, Highsmith has been at the center of contract extension talks. When this deal does ultimately get done, the Steelers are going to be forking up a lot of money at the edge defender position, but it's much better than the alternative of letting him walk.
The question now becomes: can Alex Highsmith keep up the pace? When it comes to work ethic and motor, there's no reason to suggest that he can't perform as well in 2023 as he did in 2022. Now, this may not be reflected in the box score. It's certainly possible that Highsmith has a bit less sack production but is still a better player than the one we saw.
T.J. Watt is the biggest testimony as to why this will be the case. When Highsmith played with Watt last year. Without Watt playing alongside him last year, Highsmith recorded just 3.5 sacks. However, in less than 9 full games with Watt working across from him, Highsmith recorded a whopping 11.0 sacks. If Watt stays healthy, he's going to draw the attention of opposing teams, thus allowing Highsmith to win one-on-one matchups on the blindside.
Alex Highsmith may never reach 'star' status in the NFL, but he's a rock-solid football player who deserves to be recognized for his pass rush prowess in 2022. It's nice to see him steal a little thunder from All-Pro T.J. Watt every once in a while.