When Steelers Now’s Nick Farabaugh mocked the Steelers picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, his pick for their third round selection was Charlotte edge rusher Alex Highsmith.
When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that pick on Friday, Highsmith was the name.
What made Highsmith such a good fit for the Steelers? Farabaugh explains:
Film Study: Alex Highsmith Brings Juice to Steelers Pass Rush
The Steelers surprised more than a few people by taking an outside linebacker in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Coming into the draft, it was a position that could be addressed due to the looming contract of Bud Dupree, who is on a one-year rental contract on the franchise tag. Seeing as the Steelers have a plethora of contracts to take care of in the next year, Dupree may be on his way out. Even then, with Anthony Chickillo gone, the Steelers needed to address the depth and get a rotational pass rusher.
All of that is taken care of now as they selected Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith, who was an uber-productive pass rusher who was a standout all week at the East-West Shrine Game in Tampa. Given what he has put on tape, his selection is not a surprise and the Steelers hit a home run with the pick of Highsmith, who put up quality tape not just against teams in the Conference USA, but also against a top team such as Clemson.
The one developing area of Highsmith’s game is his counters and pass rush moves. There are a few moves that he employs to win and starting last season, a spin move was one of the ways he won inside as offensive tackles overset for his speed rush. Highsmith has a few defining traits to his game, but there is no doubt that his explosive first step is a key one. He gets off the line and up the arc in a hurry because of his explosive first step. The good thing is that he is not simply a speed rusher. While that is how he wins most of the time, he can pull off nifty moves like this. Clemson tackle Jackson Carman oversets expecting the speed rush from Highsmith, but instead, he takes his pass rush angle up the arc and bends it back inside on that spin move.
One thing that was telling on the Clemson tape was just how much they prepared for Highsmith. Carman is a good tackle and a potential first-round pick in 2021, but Highsmith gave him fits all day long. They chipped Highsmith with tight ends and kept running backs in just in an effort to try and stop him. This play above shows off his first step. He has rocket shoes on his feet on this play as he beats Carman to his spot. If not for a quick three-step drop and throw from Trevor Lawrence, this may have been a sack for Highsmith off his explosiveness alone.
Run defense is a part of Highsmith’s game that is inconsistent, but as his hand usage has improved, so has his run defense. This play is one where he shows he can take advantage of a tackle’s mistakes. Carman is flat-footed and lunges towards Highsmith rather than driving through his chest, allowing Highsmith to be nifty and zoom right on by here. That is part of the reason his explosiveness causes so many problems. However, he does a nice job of executing a chop-rip to slice down the line to make a tackle. Based on the film, the chop-rip combination is Highsmith’s go-to move.
Here is the chop-rip again, this time for a sack. Highsmith does a great job of nailing his hand right inside the tackle’s pad, which is almost always certain death for a tackle. The ability to rip around the edge and make this arc tight is something that Highsmith is really good at doing. Still, this is more about his burst and hand usage combination that allows him to win.
This is exactly how Highsmith recorded most of his sacks, however. When the Steelers drafted him, they likely bet not just on his improvement as a strategist with his counters and moves, but his combination of burst and bend to destroy set angles and win around the edge with his speed rush. He does that extremely well here as he sets his pass rush angle up as if he was going to come here with some power move such as bull rush. However, his lateral agility allows him to cut back outside and use his explosiveness to get the angle. After that, it is all flexibility in his ankles. The ankle flexion he gets is really great on that lead leg. It bends and leads under his shoulders and hip to allow him to dip and reduce his surface area on his way to getting this sack.
The Steelers’ selection of Highsmith may have been their best pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. His combination of burst and bend makes him a perfect fit for the 3-4 outside linebacker scheme. With the Steelers rushing their outside linebackers more than ever, Highsmith is a great fit to provide more pass rush upside in the rotation than anyone since Jason Worilds. With his improvement in his pass rush plan and hand usage, HIghsmith could be a starter in 2021 if Dupree walks after the 2020 season.
Colbert Explains Why He Wanted Three Rounds Added to 2020 Draft
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is offering an explanation as to why he wanted three rounds added to the 2020 NFL Draft.
Speaking with NBC Sport’s Mike Florio on the PFT PM podcast Tuesday, Colbert took the opportunity to clarify his suggestion.
“The reasoning was, part of it was selfish,” Colbert said. “You wanted to have a safety net because we’re dealing with less information, and the more picks you have, maybe you’ll have a little bit of a safety net again.”
With the league’s self-implemented travel restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, clubs were unable to conduct their normal scouting activities prior to the Draft. This included Pro Days, private workouts and in-person interviews.
Less opportunities to watch and speak with prospects results in a larger margin for error.
Colbert went on to say that it also would have benefited some of the fringe prospects in the Draft that never had the chance to showcase themselves at a Pro Day or other setting.
“The other thing was it would give the marginal player that didn’t get his opportunity to go to a Pro Day and to perform. Maybe there will be more players drafted and then those players will then again have the chance they might not get.”
Now without rookie minicamps, the challenges are mounting for clubs and NFL hopefuls.
“Every year a team might stumble upon a tryout player,” Colbert said. “Maybe if we ever get on the field, we can think of a way to help those because there’s a big group of players that aren’t getting opportunities because of the situation.”
Colbert reminded Florio that the Steelers discovered Devlin “Duck” Hodges as a tryout in camp last year.
It is unclear when teams will be allowed to return to the practice field for their offseason programs, with clubs currently conducting theirs entirely from home.
Steelers Hope Anthony McFarland, Jr. Can Be Big-Play Threat
Fournette, a 6-foot, 228-pound bruiser, rushed 265 times for 1,152 yards (4.3 yards per carry) in 2019 as the absolute centerpiece of a Jacksonville offense that struggled mightily to throw the ball, bouncing between an injured and ineffective Nick Foles and inexperienced rookie Gardner Minshew II.
It was a similar story to what happened in Pittsburgh in 2019, as power backs James Conner (4.0 yards per carry) and Benny Snell (3.9 yards per carry) struggled to move the ball on the ground without the threat of an over-the-top passing game that was neutered by the loss of Ben Roethlisberger.
It might have been too similar of a situation. Fournette, while talented, replicates a lot of the skillsets that Conner and Snell bring to the table.
Instead, the Steelers used one of those fourth-round picks on a running back with a decidedly different skillset in Maryland’s Anthony McFarland, Jr.
What McFarland brings to the table is a bit of home-run speed that the Steelers have been lacking. McFarland’s 4.44-second 40-yard dash time is is nearly two-tenths of a second faster than Conner’s.
Conner had just 16 rushes for more than 10 yards in 2019. The Baltimore Ravens had three players with more: Lamar Jackson, who led the NFL with 47, Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards. It’s a significant need for the Steelers to find someone that can more frequently turning running plays into big plays. They think that can be McFarland.
“He is really explosive,” Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner said. “He gets from zero to 60 really quick. Quickness, speed and has shown the ability to hit the long ball. That is a little bit of a change from what we have. We have those people who are capable of doing it, but when you compare him to the likes of Conner and Benny, he is a little different as a runner which I think makes us more valuable as a group.”
Of course, McFarland, being the junior statesman in a committee that also includes Conner, Snell and Jaylen Samuels, is not going to get a ton of touches right away. In order to make an impact, he’s going to have to show the ability to make big plays in a part-time role.
“He has shown the ability to catch the ball,” Faulkner said. “He has shown the ability to run the ball outside, inside. He has that versatility you are looking for as an all-around guy. I think he is a good compliment.”
McFarland also offered another area where he could contribute right away: special teams. Trey Edmunds secured a roster spot as the Steelers’ fourth back through much of 2019, mostly due to his special teams prowess.
“I feel like I can do it all,” McFarland said. “Kick return, I feel like I can do it all and did it. It’s something I need to do to diversify. That’s what I can do. In high school I was an all-purpose back. I feel like any way a coach is going to line me up there on the offense, I can do it. I’m not necessarily too worried about that.”