Highsmith was PFF’s third-highest-graded rookie defender. He finished first — even above 2020 No. 2 overall pick Chase Young — among rookies in pass-rush win percentage. Still, Highsmith wasn’t content. He’s mad that he was getting off the line of scrimmage too slow at the snap, and criticism that he wasn’t a complete player because of struggles against the run resonated with him. He took it to heart.
So, Highsmith channeled that anger and went down to Charlotte, N.C., where he played college football at UNC Charlotte, this offseason to work at his craft and fix those self-described or perceived issues in his game.
The 2020 third-round pick arranged a quid pro quo with some of his former college teammates. They’d snap a football to help him get off the line of scrimmage faster, and he’d help instill the knowledge he gleaned from his one year in the pros into them. He also worked on his hip flexibility and mobility so he could gain more ground with an explosive first step off the line of scrimmage.
He’s already much happier with his get-off.
Highsmith also sought out to prove he could be a three-down defender by bulking up. He worked with former Carolina Panthers assistant strength and conditioning coach Jason Benguche at Jet Performance Labs and added five pounds of good weight.
“I got off to a good start during camp this year,” Highsmith said. “I came to camp this year in some of the best shape of my life.”
Highsmith also worked to refine his pass-rush moves. The end result of Highsmith’s offseason training was evident in Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game when he put Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe in a high-speed blender with a lightning-quick spin move and brought down quarterback Garrett Gilbert for a sack.
Second-year breakout candidate Alex Highsmith already off to a HOT start ????
— PFF (@PFF) August 6, 2021
He tallied two hurries and a sack in just 15 pass-rush snaps Thursday.
Highsmith’s spin was already a strength, but it’s clearly become even more precise. It shouldn’t come as a major surprise that it’s Highsmith’s favorite pass-rush move.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) August 6, 2021
Highsmith’s work ethic and commitment to improving stems from his days as a walk-on with the Charlotte 49ers. He was undersized and played on a losing team in high school, so he lacked any major offers and walked on to the FBS school that gave him a chance. After redshirting as a true freshman, the Wilmington, N.C., native was a starting defender by his redshirt sophomore season.
“That mentality, call it a walk-on mentality, I still try to have that in today’s game,” Highsmith said. “Even though I was drafted, I still work, play and prepare like I’m a walk-on, like I was an undrafted guy. That’s just really the mentality that I’ve always had. Coming in, people have doubted me before and so whenever someone does it fuels me to prove them wrong. It just gives me more motivation.”
Beyond all of the physical work Highsmith put in this offseason, the second-year pro should also take a leap forward this season because he’s no longer buried in information while trying to learn the ways of the NFL. Highsmith, like all rookies last season, was thrust into training camp and didn’t get to experience in-person rookie minicamp, organized team activities or minicamp. Thursday was Highsmith’s first-ever NFL preseason game.
“Rookie year definitely wasn’t all that I dreamt it to be,” Highsmith said. “It was still a dream come true. It was still a blessing to be able to play the game I love for a living, but I’m in a super exciting position. I’m super excited for fans, and I got a taste of that at the Hall of Fame Game in Canton with a bunch of Steeler fans waving their towels. I just really can’t wait. It’s going to be awesome, especially that first game we play in Heinz Field, seeing 60,000, 70,000 Steeler fans waving those towels, I just can’t wait.”
Highsmith was one of the few NFL rookies last season to actually get his head above water and thrive. But now that he’s in his second season and things have settled, he can work more on the mental aspect of the game. And that should help him continue to improve against the run, where Highsmith earned a 59.6 PFF grade as a rookie.
“Besides adding weight, strength and power, I think it’s just more knowledge and I.Q.,” Highsmith said. “If I can recognize certain formations that they run in, then I’ll be able to make more plays. That just comes with a lot of film study. That’s something that I take pride in, watching a lot of film.
“That’s what I’m going to do this year, try to find a little nugget, find a little key, that will let me know whether it’s going to be run or pass. A lot of times that is given away by the lineman’s stance, but sometimes linemen are in a three-point stance and they can still drop back for a pass. Say they’re heavy in their stance, they’re leaning forward, I can tell it’s probably a run. Just finding those little things is what’s going to help me make more plays this year.”
Highsmith only started five games for the Steelers last season, but he ranked among the better edge defenders in the NFL. He earned the 28th-best overall grade at his position, and he ranked 33rd with a 71.5 pass-rush grade among edge defenders. The second-year pro will likely be in a three-man rotation at outside linebacker for Pittsburgh this season, sharing the role with T.J. Watt, a 2020 first-team All-Pro, and Melvin Ingram, a 2019 Pro Bowl selection. But he’s seeing consistent first-team reps in training camp while Watt skips team drills while awaiting a new contract, and Highsmith said it would “mean a lot” to be a full-time starter in 2021.
“I’ve put myself in a great position,” Highsmith said. “I’ve worked really hard. I’m really just willing to go in and play whatever role that they give me. I’m gonna have the starter mindset, of course, but whatever role I gotta play, that’s what I’m gonna play. I’m just thankful and blessed to be in this position that I’m in.”
After last week’s Hall of Fame Game, Highsmith has his own dreams of being enshrined in Canton. But ultimately, he cares more about how he uses his platform as an NFL player. He started the Alex Highsmith Family Foundation with his father, Sam, and they hosted their first youth football camp three weeks ago.
“I just told them I was once in your guys’ shoes,” Highsmith said. “I told them the same things that some of those players told me, just to work hard and have fun at the game. That’s really what I say.”
A little anger can’t hurt either.