5 for Friday: Highsmith contract caps offseason work

The Steelers took care of the final major piece of their offseason earlier this week by signing linebacker Alex Highsmith to a five-year contract extension.

It's the capper to what has been a busy offseason for general manager Omar Khan, who was aggressive in free agency and the draft in retooling this roster.

Highsmith's new deal could have dragged on through training camp, which opens next Wednesday when players report to Saint Vincent College. But, as he has been this entire offseason, Khan was aggressive, getting it done sooner so as not to be a distraction.

In his first three seasons in the league, Highsmith has seen his sack total rise each year, going from 2.0 as a rookie to 6.0 in his second season to 14.5 in 2022.

More importantly, the former third-round pick has become an even more complete player. He sets the edge well against the run, something he did well from Day 1, but has gotten even better at along the way. And last season, he added elite ball skills to his repertoire, tying for the NFL lead last season with five forced fumbles.

Highsmith was more productive when running mate T.J. Watt was on the field last season, recording 11 of his career-best 14.5 sacks in the 10 games in which Watt also played.

But he still had 3.5 sacks, five quarterback hits and a forced fumble in the games in which Watt didn't play because of injury.

That still would have put him on pace for 8.5 sacks over a 17-game season, which is nothing to discount, especially considering that in those games in which Watt didn't play, Highsmith found himself getting Watt-like treatment, with offenses rolling protections his way.

Watt might be Batman in this defense, but people forget that Robin is a superhero, as well.

"He's an elite Robin," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "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."

And you reward that kind of hard work.

Still just 25, Highsmith is still an ascending player. We still haven't seen his best work.

Also remember that Watt's previous outside linebacker partner, Bud Dupree, took five seasons to develop into a double-digit sack player.

Highsmith did it in three seasons.

Watt accomplished that in his second season.

Joey Porter, another big-time sack producer in this defense, had a double-digit sack season in his second year in the league, but then didn't reach that total again until his seventh season in the league. Jason Gildon, who is officially second on the team's all-time sack list, didn't reach double digits until his fifth season.

You get the idea. Highsmith is on a good career trajectory.

• There are those out there who don't feel the Steelers should have signed Highsmith to an extension.

Quite frankly, those people are wrong. Or maybe they're just complaining to complain.

Beyond having a good, improving player now under contract, there are other ramifications that go beyond the field.

First, Highsmith is a high-quality character player, the kind you want to build your franchise around and include in future plans.

Second, if you don't sign players such as Highsmith, a tremendously hard worker, other players see that and it sends the wrong message through your locker room.

When players see another's hard work being rewarded, they react in an appropriate fashion and also want to do the things Highsmith did to get his long-term deal.

Some also have made the weak argument that the Steelers are allocating too much of their salary cap space on the defensive side of the ball.

This after they've signed multiple offensive linemen to long-term deals along with wide receiver Diontae Johnson in the past two years.

Fact of the matter is, so long as your quarterback is still on his rookie contract, a team's defense is going to make more money than the offense – especially when the majority of the offensive playmakers also are on rookie deals.

• With training camps opening up across the league starting earlier this week, it's a reminder of how things have changed in the NFL.

Twenty years ago, talking to players on the opening day of training camp was a big deal. In those pre-OTA days, the only time players were heard from in the offseason was at minicamp.

So, the start of training camp was an opportunity to learn what players had been doing the entire offseason because you just didn't have time to get around the entire locker room during minicamp.

But now, the stories have already been written about all of the new guys. We know who has put on weight, who has lost it and who is trying a different approach to the season.

It's part of the NFL's year-round blitz to keep itself in the public eye. And we love it. We love talking year-round about a sport that realistically takes up 20 or so weekends per year.

It's a beautiful thing.

At this time of the year, the reports coming out of camps across the league are who showed up at camp with an injury. Or, it's who is holding out wanting a new contract.

It's seldom good news, unless it's a contract extension like the one Highsmith signed.

Of course, there will still be the obligatory reports of this or that player showing up "in the best shape of his life." That's a given. Nobody shows up in the worst shape of their lives.

That's reserved for those covering the team in the media.

• Tooling around the internet or looking at social media, you'll see a lot of posts, stories and questions regarding whether or not Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada will "unleash" Kenny Pickett this season.

The real question should be not about the Steelers allowing Pickett to do more. They will. He now has 13 games worth of NFL experience under his belt.

No, the real question should be how much more efficient will Pickett be in his second season at quarterback?

In the 10 games in which he started and finished the game last season, Pickett attempted 357 passes. Now, we don't pretend to be mathematical wizards here, but that seems to work out to be an average of 35.7 passes per game.

Compare that to the 275 passes Ben Roethlisberger attempted in his 14 starts in his rookie season – an average of 19.6 per game – and you see the difference.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

Now, that was a different era of the NFL. Teams did run the ball more. But Pickett averaged nearly twice as many passes in his rookie season when compared to Roethlisberger.

How about this comparison, then?

Trevor Lawrence attempted 35.4 passes per game as a rookie in 2021. Last season, he averaged 34.4.

Did anyone think the Jaguars held him back at all, even though he attempted fewer passes?

Remember, Lawrence threw 12 touchdown passes and had 17 interceptions as a rookie. He turned that around to throw 25 touchdowns with eight interceptions in his second season.

Now, this is not to suggest Pickett will do something similar to that, but at no point last year did it look like the Steelers weren't allowing Pickett to play to his strengths.

If he's better in 2023 than he was in 2022, it will simply be because he continued along the maturation process for a young quarterback.

• This will be Tomlin's 17th training camp with the Steelers. It will be his 15th at Saint Vincent College.

Given that the Steelers typically spend the better part of a month at Saint Vincent College when they go there for training camp, the 51-year-old Tomlin will have spent two percent of his life living in the dorms there.

If Tomlin had things his way, he'd spend a lot more time in those dorms.

Tomlin loves football. If he could sequester his team in a college dorm year-round – or at least during the season – he'd do it in a heartbeat.

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