Outside linebacker Alex Highsmith is breaking rookie norms in Pittsburgh this year. Over the years the Steelers have been cautious with their rookies, especially on defense. Typically they take their time to get rookies into the fold on defense, but Highsmith is already seeing plenty of snaps for the 3-0 Steelers.
So far this season Highsmith has played over 15% of the Steelers defensive snaps. He came very close to his first NFL sack against the Houston Texans in week 3 and has not looked overmatched so far during his rookie year. The last rookie outside linebacker to see this much playing time in Pittsburgh was LaMarr Woodley.
During his rookie year, Woodley played behind Clark Haggans. A year later he took over as a starter and formed one of the best outside linebacker duos with James Harrison for six years before leaving Pittsburgh.
The Steelers defense is in a similar position right now. Bud Dupree and TJ Watt are one of the most dominant outside linebacker duos in the NFL. Dupree, however, is going to be a free agent at the end of the year. Salary cap issues could price Dupree out of town and the Steelers may need a replacement ready for 2021.
This could be one of the main reasons that Highsmith is seeing so many snaps so far this season. If Dupree is not back next season it will likely be up to Highsmith or Ola Adeniyi to take over the outside linebacker job across from Watt.
Highsmith’s play throughout the rest of the 2020 season could also factor into the Steelers’ decision to re-sign Dupree in the off-season. If Highsmith is able to show potential as a quality starting outside linebacker and improve throughout this year it could spell the end of Dupree’s time in Pittsburgh. On the other hand, if Highsmith and Adeniyi don’t look ready it could force the Steelers to make Dupree a top target to be resigned.