PITTSBURGH -- Standing in the doorway of the media room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin grinned and nodded as linebacker Alex Highsmith detailed his journey to the four-year, $68 million extension he signed a week ago.
Now one of the top-10 highest paid edge rushers, Highsmith is the latest example of the long-standing Steelers’ draft-and-develop method. He embodies the blue-collar attitude of Tomlin and the organization.
“The walk-on mentality is something that's going to stick with me forever,” Highsmith said Monday. “Just being back in college and getting there in 2015 with no offers, zero stars, and not even going to camp my freshman year … I just wanted to outwork everybody and be the best that I could. I still carry that mindset with me today, because I know there's always people that are going to work to be better than you.”
Selected in the third round of the 2020 draft, Highsmith had a breakout season in 2022 with 14.5 sacks -- almost double his first two seasons combined -- and proved to be a complementary piece to 2021 Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt.
“He's an elite Robin,” Tomlin said during mandatory minicamp. “You know, as we say, we like to challenge him in that way. He's growing. He's making a name for himself in this thing. He seeks perfection. His maturation has been one that we anticipate and expect to be quite honest with you. We put quality people in this program,and they work within, and they just simply get better, and their tape does as well and he's an example of that.”
In signing Highsmith, the Steelers continue to invest premium dollars in their defense, bucking a league-wide trend of spending big money on offensive weapons. Division-mates Baltimore,
Cleveland and Cincinnati all rank in the top-10 in offensive spending with at least $121 million allocated to that side of the ball, while the Steelers are 21st with $105 million going to the offense, per Over the Cap.
After leading the league in defensive spending with a payroll of $109.9 million a year ago, the Steelers are fourth this season behind the Chargers, Bills and Seahawks with a defense that checks in at $120.3 million, per Over the Cap. And with Watt on the books for $29 million, the organization is third in edge rusher spending for the 2023 season.
The money, though, gives the Steelers sought-after stability in a position that’s experienced turnover. While the Steelers have a long tradition of elite outside linebacker play, they haven’t entered a season with two starters playing on at least their second contracts since 2014 when Lamar Woodley and Jason Worilds were the team’s starting outside linebackers.
“The guys that we have on defense, I think we're one of the best -- if not the best -- … in the league,” Highsmith said, asked about the pressure that comes with the high price tag. “And I think when we played to that ability -- I think last year we started playing some of our best ball towards the end of the year. Everyone was healthy. -- so I truly think we can be one of not the best units in the league, and so we just got to practice like that. It starts this Wednesday at Latrobe.”
Now, both Watt and Highsmith are under contract for several seasons with Watt scheduled to hit free agency in 2026 and Highsmith in 2028. The Steelers also inked another outside linebacker in Markus Golden during free agency, giving the position the kind of quality depth it’s lacked since Bud Dupree was on the roster with Watt and Highsmith in 2020.
“The past couple years, being able to play alongside T.J., I feel like we've continued to get better together and continue to develop more cohesiveness,” Highsmith said. “Being with him has just been awesome because I continue to learn from him. I continue to pick his brain about stuff, about rushing the passer and stuff like that, so it's been cool, really developing chemistry with him. I look forward to the havoc that we're going to cause this year.”