Although the 2020 season for the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans did not end the way that both parties wanted, there was plenty left on the field for the Steelers organization to be excited about when looking towards the future. It seems like there has been an infusion of youth talent that Pittsburgh has acquired throughout the last few years and last season was no different. The Steelers first two draft picks of the 2020 NFL Draft could not have panned out any better for the organization. As we know, the Steelers lost their 1st round pick in 2020 due to receiving safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in a trade with the Miami Dolphins back in 2019. That led to the Steelers selecting wide receiver Chase Claypool and outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, 49th and 102nd overall with their 2nd and 3rd round selections. Both young prospects had significant impacts on the field and hope to continue to do so in the future.
Claypool’s impact was one that was felt around the NFL. He plays a position that obviously garners more attention than Highsmith, and he had more of an immediate impact early on than expected. Within the first 4 games of his rookie year, Claypool had already scored 4 touchdowns (3 in one game) and had a 100-yard receiving game under his belt. He seemed to be quickly becoming a huge part of the Steelers offensive game plan, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seemed to be developing a high dose of confidence in the young receiver, and rightfully so. Because of his size and skill, Claypool was getting compared to the likes of all time greats just simply based on that fact. This is something that he can hopefully continue to live up to during his time in the black and gold.
Highsmith’s journey might not have started as fast as Claypool’s did, but the results still spoke volumes. After star outside linebacker Bud Dupree tore his ACL in a Week 9 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, Highsmith was given a tall task. That task? To replace Dupree’s productivity — while Dupree’s contributions were ones that garnered tons of respect. It seemed like Dupree was finally coming into his own on this defense. He and T.J. Watt had built something special attacking both sides of the offensive line with ease. Just having Dupree on the field, giving that support to Watt, allows for much more production on the defensive side of the ball. After Dupree went down, that support was something the Steelers thought they would be without for the remainder of the year.
Little did they know, they might have a budding star in the works with 3rd round pick Highsmith out of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He started in the last 5 games of the season, where in those, he combined for 48 tackles with 5 of those being behind the line of scrimmage. Highsmith was credited with 2 solo sacks and was on the receiving end of an interception thrown by Lamar Jackson in a Week 6 win versus the Baltimore Ravens. Highsmith’s contributions were felt almost immediately following his debut, and while he may not be the type of player that Dupree has proven to be quite yet, there is a good chance Highsmith could be well on his way.
In his rookie campaign, Highsmith was named to the All-Rookie defensive line group joining fellow rookies Chase Young (Washington Football Team), Raekwon Davis (Miami Dolphins) and Derrick Brown (Carolina Panthers). Out of these 4 players, Highsmith himself was the lowest round pick to make this selected group (3rd round, 102nd overall), a whole round after Davis (2nd Round, 56th overall). Coming out of Charlotte, Highsmith was praised for his natural pass rushing abilities, being quick enough to get around the slower offensive tackle positions and getting in a quick pursuit to the quarterback. He was praised for his understanding of how to use his quick hands, whether that be in pass coverage or using them as an advantage in the rush game. One of Highsmith’s downfalls was that he did not face the best quality of opponent during his college days. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte are considered members of Conference USA, where the level of play is not to be disrespected but some scouts do hold certain conferences to a higher standard, and it looks like Highsmith might have fallen victim to that.
Bud Dupree is scheduled to be a free agent this coming off-season and the plans as far as a return to Pittsburgh have not yet been made clear. The Rooney family have been very adamant on Dupree returning to the Steelers organization on a new deal, but there still remains a question as to how much money Dupree is after. Not to say that move wouldn’t be worth it, Dupree is a great player who has done nothing but grow since his rookie year and has the stats to back that up. In 2015, he played in all 16 games, only totaling 4.5 sacks with 26 combined tackles. Compare that to his last full season in 2019 where he totaled 11.5 sacks, entering the double digit mark for the first time in his career. Who knows what this off-season holds, we don’t know if Pittsburgh has the means to retain him, and as much as SteelerNation would love to bring him back, we might have a young prospect waiting for his opportunity to come to fruition.
Would you have confidence with Highsmith as our string OLB in 2021? Comment below!