New deal in hand, Highsmith ready to get back to work

With a new five-year contract in hand, Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith made no bones Monday about what the next step is for himself and his teammates moving forward.

"The No. 1 goal is the Super Bowl. We've got to get back to that," Highsmith said at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "Everyone in this locker room has the goal of not only getting to it, but winning it. That's the No. 1 and only goal."

The road to achieving that goal will begin anew Wednesday when Highsmith and the Steelers report to training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.

Getting Highsmith signed to a contract extension was one of the final pieces to the 2023 offseason puzzle for the Steelers and general manager Omar Khan. The 25-year-old is coming off a season where he had a team-high 14.5 sacks while also tying for the league lead with 5 forced fumbles.

Highsmith wanted to get a new deal in hand before practices start on Thursday so that he could focus solely on football and not be concerned about contract negotiations.

"For me, (it was) just wanting to go in and the only thing on my mind is just to play ball. I wanted to be here throughout the contract negotiations during OTAs because I'm somebody who likes to work," Highsmith said. "Last year, I got hurt during camp. It was killing me not being with the guys and working. I always want to be locked in and working. I'm excited for Latrobe in a couple of days and get ready to work."

A walk-on at the University of Charlotte, Highsmith eventually earned a scholarship there and worked his way into being drafted by the Steelers in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft.

He spent his rookie season working behind the duo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree before taking over for Dupree opposite Watt in 2021.

Highsmith has seen his sack totals rise from 2.0 as a rookie to 6.0 in his second season to his career-best 14.5 last season – despite Watt missing seven games opposite him.

Now, with Watt, the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year healthy, Highsmith feels the Steelers defense is ready to reach greater heights once again after finishing 13th in total yards allowed and tied for 10th in scoring defense.

"The guys we have on defense, I think we're one of the best, if not the best," Highsmith said. "We can be the best in the league. Last year, we were playing some of our best ball later in the year. Everyone was healthy. I think we can be one of the best units in the league. It starts this Wednesday in Latrobe with everybody getting there and getting locked in."

Despite his big season in 2022, Highsmith feels there are still things he can improve. And that feeling comes, at least in part, because of his mentality as a former college walk-on.

He carries that chip on his shoulder to this day.

"It's something I'll always have," he said. "The walk-on mentality is something that's going to stick with me forever. Being back in college in 2015 and having no offers, zero stars, not even going to camp my freshman year. As soon as I got there to Charlotte, I wanted to work out with everybody and be the best I could. I still carry that with me, even today. There are people who are going to work to be better than you, so working for this team is just what I'm going to continue to do."

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And he feels those things at which he can get better are tangible.

He's been working out with All-Pro defensive tackle Cam Heyward this offseason to help improve on some of them.

"More sacks, more caused fumbles, more havoc in general. Just playing better on details," Highsmith said. "Going back and watching my film, there are so many little things I could have done better. Watching the rushes, I could have finished so many more sacks that I had. Just focusing more on the details. 

"This offseason, I feel like I've gotten stronger and faster. I've been working out with Cam this offseason, so that's been pretty cool working out with him. He's always ready to go when he comes to camp, always ready for the season. Being able to be around him and get my body in shape this season has been, I feel like I can get better in that way."

Highsmith attended all of the team's offseason workouts and practices with that in mind. He trusted the Steelers and his agent, Michael Swenson, would get something worked out to keep him in Pittsburgh for the long term. That allowed him to focus on football.

He never questioned the process.

"I just felt like this was the place for me," Highsmith said. "I love this team and I love this defense, the system that I'm in, the coaching staff and everybody. Year by year, I've continued to get better. I feel like my best ball is in front of me and I could have played way better last year. I just look forward to continuing to improve. I just wanted to let everyone here know, I'm here to work and here to get better.

"Being here and part of this city the past three years, the rich history, the tradition, I know why so many people want to be a part of this organization. Me and my family, we love it here. We're close to family. We love this city. I think this city values hard-working people, and I feel like I'm one of those people. I feel like I'm a Steeler through and through."

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