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Winning the Fight of Their Lives
Highsmith added to provide much needed depth at OLB
Let's just jump ahead to the comparison we're going to run into in a few paragraphs anyway.
Let's just compare Steelers third-round draft pick Alex Highsmith to this other outside linebacker/edge rusher, an outstanding if not unheralded edge rusher by the name of Yannick Ngakoue of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
HERE ARE THEIR RESPECTIVE NFL COMBINE NUMBERS:
• Ngakoue: 6-2, 252, 32.5 arms, 4.75 40, 1.64 10, 34.5 vertical jump, 9-10 broad jump, 4.5 shuttle, 7.35 3-cone.
• Highsmith: 6-3, 248, 33.1 arms, 4.70 40, 1.68 10, 33 vertical jump, 10-5 broad jump, 4.31 shuttle, 7.32 3-cone.
AND THEIR FINAL TWO YEARS OF COLLEGE STATISTICS:
Ngakoue: 51 solo tackles, 28 tackles- for-loss, 19 sacks, 3 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles.
Highsmith: 81 solos tkls., 40 tackles-for-loss, 18 sacks, 4 passes defensed, 4 forced fumbles.
THEIR DRAFT POSITIONS:
• Ngakoue, Maryland, Round 3, pick 60, No. 10 edge-rusher.
Highsmith, Charlotte, Round 3, pick 102, No. 12 edge-rusher.
FINALLY, THE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE ABOVE DATA:
• Ngakoue: bit shorter, tick slower/less ag-ile; similar explosion, production; excellent strength; better college competition; more difficult spelling.
• Highsmith: taller, longer arms; strength in question since he didn't bench; sack stats lower as inside player as junior; coaches love former walk-ons.
OK, now let's roll the tape of Highsmith, the newest Steelers pass-rusher, and imagine Brian Baldinger, courtesy of #BaldysBreakdowns, with a laser pointer in hand:
“Alex Highsmith set a school record with (15) sacks (last) year. Former walk-on earned a scholarship after his second year. He's got an array of moves. He can dip, bend, get under-neath big tackles, force the holding call, take the quarterback down.
“Now, you look at this right here, he's got
a speed-to-power move. He's got an array of moves. Here, the feet don't stop. He's being chipped by the back. The quarterback breaks free. He's there to take him down.
“Now, watch him on this side. He's got a cross-chop move that's next level. It's what DeMarcus Lawrence is doing. It's what Aaron Donald is doing. It's what Yannick Ngakoue
is doing. And by the way, he reminds me of Yannick Ngakoue. He's got a slender build. He probably needs to get stronger and fill out more, but there it is! That's a next-level move right there. You don't just do that on Saturdays. You do that in the offseason, hours and hours of time of when to use it, when to bring it out. But he uses it there, and it works.
“Here's the same move. This is what the NFL's becoming, that Euro step cross-chop. There it is. Chuck Smith's coaching it in Atlanta. He's got an array of moves.
“Now, he gets too high on the quarterback, so what do you do there when you're too high? You spin back. Here comes the spin to get to the quarterback. He's got a plan. He's got an array of moves. He's had success.
“And then finally, you get the inside move. Just nice inside swim right here. Tackle gets too far outside. Sudden! And now you close on the quarterback.
“I'm telling you, Alex Highsmith catches my attention. I think he's got a chance.” Who says we need the best of technology to understand this game? And Baldinger makes a great point in that Ngakoue is an outstanding professional pass-rusher. In four seasons, he's produced sack totals of 8, 12, 9.5, and 8, with 9 passes defensed and 14, yep, 14 forced fumbles.
That second year, Ngakoue forced 6 fumbles had 12 sacks, and made the Pro Bowl.
Highsmith has similar physical potential (any alleged lack of strength wasn't discernible against Clemson) and clearly as a walk-on proved that he has the mental and emotional traits to make it.
Can he put up Ngakoue numbers? Well, Highsmith's path to the lineup isn't as clear as the one Ngakoue had with the Jaguars. But Steelers GM Kevin Colbert doesn't see why not.
“He stood out in the East-West practices,” Colbert said of Highsmith. “A long, fast, athletic guy, he continued to impress us athletically at the Combine. And when you really looked at his history, what he did as a walk-on – was a spe-cial-teams standout as a young player – to end up putting out the stats that he has this season, we don't think this kid's anywhere near where he might be somewhere down the road.”
“It's obvious that he's a technician," said Coach Mike Tomlin. “He studies the rush ele-ment of play. He really took a significant step in 2019 in terms of developing his rush reper-toire. I think it was beneficial to him in terms of production, and it's reasonable to expect that growth and understanding in analyzing what he does, and how it produces plays, to continue, even as he takes a step to this level of play.
No one quoted here actually knows Highsmith personally, so let's bring in his coach at Charlotte, Will Healy, for the wrap: “It's a process, but when you do things right like he does, and do it consistently, you are bound to have results. That, with the God-given ability, is why he turned out to be so special.
“I think it's such a great match him going to the Steelers. I know what the Steelers' motto has been for a long time, what they have been known for. It's Alex Highsmith – people who love the game of football; people who are physical; people who are durable; people who are great teammates. It's about the organization and not the individual. That is Alex. Whatever you ask him to do, he will do it exactly like you ask him to do it. He will be great on special teams. That will give him the ability to work his way into the defense while he is learning and creating some consistency. He still has some growth. He will do everything you ask him to do for the team. The guys in the locker room will love him. He will outwork anybody.”