Alex Highsmith

Steelers, OLB Alex Highsmith Begin Extension Talks

Although the Steelers have the NFL’s highest-paid edge rusher on their cap sheet, signs continue to point to the team strongly considering making room for an Alex Highsmith extension as well. The T.J. Watt sidekick is going into a contract year, and the team has begun talks on a new deal.

Highsmith confirmed (via’s Brooke Pryor) his agent has started extension talks with the Steelers. The fourth-year pass rusher expressed optimism a deal will be completed, and given the dialogue over the past several months — including a strong endorsement on this front from GM Omar Khan — optimism makes sense.

[RELATED: Steelers Sign OLB Markus Golden]

With Watt out for a chunk of last season due to a pectoral injury, Highsmith stepped forward as Pittsburgh’s stop pass rusher. The former third-round pick tallied 14.5 sacks, the most by a non-Watt Steeler since James Harrison‘s 2008 Defensive Player of the Year season. That number tied for the fifth-most in Steelers history, and Highsmith’s 17.5 sacks over his past 20 games rank second in the NFL. This stands to put the franchise to a decision. It appears the Steelers are angling to keep Highsmith as a long-term Watt complementary presence.

Early optimism notwithstanding, these could be tricky negotiations. Highsmith, 25, zoomed onto the radar for a big payday last season, a showing that also included an NFL-leading five forced fumbles. Highsmith could bet on himself and aim for a big contract year, putting the Steelers to a choice of franchise-tagging him or reaching a deal to prevent a free agency departure. But just three of Highsmith’s 2022 sacks came during the seven games Watt missed. Watt naturally creates favorable matchups for the Steelers’ other pass rushers, but the team viewing Highsmith as a clear No. 2 edge could lead to negotiations beginning at a lower rate.

The Chargers are the NFL’s only team with two edge rushers (Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack) earning more than $20MM on average. The Giants now have two interior D-linemen (Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence) signed to deals in that neighborhood, but Williams is in a contract year. Pittsburgh will be expecting Watt to play at this level for several more years, and a Highsmith re-up would need to accompany his $28MM-per-year salary.

The Steelers have some flexibility here, with Kenny Pickett on a rookie contract and only one offensive player (Diontae Johnson) tied to an eight-figure-per-year deal. But Highsmith could certainly push for an extension north of $15MM per year. The Steelers will likely attempt to keep the price south of $20MM per annum, but while the franchise did not extend Bud Dupree after franchise-tagging him in 2020, it has a history of using this blueprint. Harrison and LaMarr Woodley teamed up on veteran extensions in the early 2010s, with Harrison signing his first extension in 2009 and Woodley joining him in 2011. Woodley stayed in Pittsburgh through the ’13 season. Highsmith’s resume is not quite where Woodley’s was prior to his extension, so it will be interesting to see what numbers emerge here during these talks.

Highsmith checked in as Dupree’s eventual replacement, coming from a mid-major program (Charlotte). Khan extended both Johnson and Minkah Fitzpatrick last summer. With the Steelers preferring to hammer out extensions before the candidate’s walk year, a resolution here should be expected in the coming weeks.

Latest On Steelers LB Alex Highsmith

The Steelers still intend to make Alex Highsmith a foundational part of their defense. While we haven’t heard many updates on the edge rusher’s extension talks, general manager Omar Khan made it clear this week that he intends to sign the player to a long-term pact.

“We don’t like to talk specifically about an individual contract, but I’ll say this, he’s a Steeler,” Khan said during an appearance on 93.7 The Fan (via Josh Alper of “Since the day he got here, he’s been awesome. He gets better and better every year, and I really hope Alex is here for a long time.”

Back in December, Mark Kaboly of The Athletic suggested that a Highsmith extension was inevitable and “a done deal.” The writer still believes that’s the case, and while the Steelers would traditionally hand out these types of extensions in August or September, Kaboly believes “Khan would probably like to get it done before the start of camp” in July.

After starting all 16 of his appearances in 2021, Highsmith had a breakout season in 2022. The former third-round pick finished the campaign with 14.5 sacks and a league-leading five forced fumbles, leading to him ranking 28th among 119 qualifying edge players on Pro Football Focus’ positional rankings.

As Kaboly notes, there could be a few complications during negotiations. For starters, the Steelers already gave edge rusher T.J. Watt a four-year, $112MM extension that featured $80MM in guaranteed money. While most teams aren’t investing big contracts in two edge rushers, the Steelers’ rookie-contract offensive players could allow them to extend on the defensive side of the ball.

As of right now, Highsmith is set to earn $2.74MM in the final year of his rookie contract. As Kaboly notes, the Steelers currently don’t have the cap space to give the 25-year-old a lucrative extension, but they could easily carve out that space by restructuring the contracts of high-priced players like Watt, Diontae Johnson, and/or James Daniels.

Steelers Expected To Extend OLB Alex Highsmith

The Steelers are expected to extend linebacker Alex Highsmith this offseason, according to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic (subscription required). In Kaboly’s estimation, a new contract for the Charlotte product is “a done deal.”

A 2020 third-rounder, Highsmith will be extension-eligible for the first time at season’s end, and he has certainly earned a hefty raise on his rookie salary. Through 13 games this season, he has compiled a career-best 10 sacks, and that statistic in and of itself would make him a hot commodity if he were on the open market. His pass rush work is supported by a strong Pro Football Focus grade against the run (70.5) and a stellar mark in coverage (88.4).

So, despite Kaboly’s acknowledgement that Highsmith has been inconsistent at times, it is clear — as head coach Mike Tomlin has stated — that he is an ascending player who has yet to reach his ceiling. Pittsburgh has been ranked in or near the bottom-10 in terms of total defense over the last two seasons, but in T.J. Watt and Highsmith, the club boasts one of the best OLB tandems in the league.

Watt, who has played in only six games thus far in 2022 due to a pectoral injury and knee surgery, signed a record-setting four-year, $112MM contract last September, which features $80MM in guaranteed money. While Highsmith’s next contract will certainly not be in that stratosphere, a ~$17MM/year deal akin to those signed by players like Harold Landry and Shaquil Barrett would seem to be a fair ask. Plus, as long as the Steelers’ presumptive starting quarterback (Kenny Pickett) is playing on a rookie contract, the team can afford to splurge on other areas of the roster, especially at premium positions.

In related news, Steelers defensive lineman Chris Wormley has suffered a torn ACL, per Ian Rapoport of (via Twitter). Wormley was placed on IR earlier this week, thereby bringing an end to a disappointing platform year. Acquired via an intra-divisonal trade with the Ravens in 2020, Wormley did enough that year to earn a two-year, $4.5MM deal with the Steelers the following offseason.

Wormley, 29, more than lived up to that contract in 2021, starting 14 games, logging a 71% snap share, and posting seven sacks. This year, he was relegated to more of a rotational role and will now enter free agency in the midst of recovery from ACL surgery.

Steelers Eyeing OLB Depth?

The Steelers did some work to improve their depth at multiple positions this offseason. One area that could still use some work is outside linebacker, and Mark Kaboly of The Athletic believes the Steelers will address the position in late August following final cuts.

The team is obviously set when it comes to their starting lineup. T.J. Watt is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, while former third-round pick Alex Highsmith is coming off a breakout year that saw him compile six sacks. That duo may be one of the best OLB tandems in the NFL,and Highsmith is hoping they can establish themselves as the best OLB grouping by taking his own game to another level.

“I definitely feel I can be more productive sacks-wise. This year hitting double digits is a main goal of mine. At least 10 or 12. Somewhere around there,” Highsmith told Tim Benz of “Refining a lot of my game. Whether that’s pass-rushing or getting more physical in the run game. No matter how much of a jump I make, I feel like I can always get better.”

However, it’s the depth behind the starting outside linebackers that’s questionable. At the moment, the grouping of Derrek Tuszka, Genard Avery, Tuzar Skipper, Delontae Scott are currently slotted in to compete for backup reps at the position. The Steelers also brought in a pair of undrafted rookies at the position in T.D. Moultry and Tyree Johnson.

As Kaboly writes, the Steelers are looking to avoid the situation that happened against the Vikings last season, when neither of the two outside linebackers could suit up. The two players have been healthy throughout their career, but experienced depth would make an injury a bit more tolerable.

Steelers’ T.J. Watt To Miss Week 3

Although Ben Roethlisberger‘s pectoral injury will not deter him from suiting up Sunday, the Steelers will be without both their scrimmage yards leader (Diontae Johnson) and their best defender.

Pittsburgh declared T.J. Watt out for its Week 3 game against Cincinnati. Watt suffered a groin injury midway through the Steelers’ Week 2 loss to the Raiders. The All-Pro outside linebacker managed three limited practices this week and entered the weekend with a questionable designation, but the Steelers will give him the weekend off.

This will be only Watt’s second injury-related absence as a pro. He missed Week 3 of his rookie season, with a groin injury sidelining him for that 2017 contest as well.

Sunday’s Steelers front seven configuration will look quite different, with the team also declaring its other outside linebacker starter — Alex Highsmith — out. The second-year edge rusher is also battling a groin ailment. Stephon Tuitt is on IR, while the Steelers placed nose tackle Tyson Alualu on their injured list this week.

Watt and Highsmith’s absences will leave recent signing Melvin Ingram to spearhead Pittsburgh’s pass rush, which has led the NFL in sacks in each of the past four seasons. The Steelers’ injury issues represent a potential reprieve for a Bengals offensive line that has allowed Joe Burrow to be sacked 10 times through two games.

NFL Draft Pick Signings: 7/22/20

Here are the latest draft pick signings. With rookies set to report to teams’ training camps this week, teams are busy on this front.

  • The Vikings were the busiest team in the draft, making 15 picks this year. They have been active signing them Wednesday. Beyond first-rounder Justin Jefferson, Minnesota has agreed to terms with second-round tackle Ezra Cleveland, fourth-round linebacker Troy Dye, fourth-round defensive tackle James Lynch and seventh-round offensive lineman Kyle Hinton. Cleveland, rumored as a possible late-first-round selection, will be groomed to become a near-future starter for the Vikings.
  • The Broncos began signing some of their picks, most notably getting third-rounders Michael Ojemudia and McTelvin Agim under contract. A cornerback, Ojemudia is set to compete for a starting job opposite A.J. Bouye; Agim profiles as D-line depth behind established starters this season. Denver also signed fourth-round tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, a Mizzou alum set to rejoin his former quarterback (Drew Lock) in the Mile High City. The Broncos also reached an agreement with seventh-round outside linebacker Derrek Tuszka.
  • Despite having T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree under contract, the Steelers used a third-round pick on outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. The Charlotte alum agreed to terms on his four-year rookie deal. Highsmith recorded 15 sacks at the mid-major program last season.
  • Packers third-round pick Josiah Deguara also agreed on his four-year rookie contract. Green Bay eschewed its wide receiver need throughout the draft, using Day 2 to add a running back (A.J. Dillon) and Deguara, who profiles as a tight end/fullback. The Cincinnati product surpassed 900 yards between his final two college seasons, totaling 12 touchdown grabs in that span.
  • Tennessee third-round running back Darrynton Evans signed his rookie deal as well. Evans looks set to replace Dion Lewis as the TitansDerrick Henry change-of-pace back. The Appalachian State alum rushed for 1,480 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. He added five receiving TDs.
  • The Giants used first- and third-round picks on tackles. The latter selection, UConn’s Matt Peart, agreed to the terms of his rookie deal Wednesday. Peart profiles as a developmental lineman, working behind expected starters Nate Solder and Andrew Thomas. He stands to join Cameron Fleming as depth for Big Blue.
  • Washington has agreed to terms with third-round running back/wideout Antonio Gibson, fourth-round receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden and fifth-round center Keith Ismael. Gibson and Gandy-Golden figure to be key parts of a Washington offense that is limited, beyond Terry McLaurin, in the passing game. Gibson totaled 1,104 yards from scrimmage at Memphis last season, while Gandy-Golden caught 20 touchdown passes in two years at Liberty.
  • Fourth-round Cowboys pick Reggie Robinson agreed to terms as well. The Tulsa cornerback joins a Cowboys team that lost Byron Jones in free agency. Dallas was active in an effort to replace the Pro Bowler, drafting Trevon Diggs in Round 2 and signing Daryl Worley.
  • Sixth-round Chargers safety Alohi Gilman, a Notre Dame alum, signed his Chargers contract Wednesday. Gillman joins a deep Bolts safety corps.
  • The Buccaneers drafted two running backs this year. On Wednesday, they agreed to terms with the second of those picks — seventh-rounder Raymond Calais. In addition to his work as a running back at Louisiana, Calais was a four-year kick returner for the Rajin’ Cajuns.