On Tuesday NFL Network Analytics Expert Cynthia Frelund published her list of the most underappreciated players in the AFC, with Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith earning a place on the ledger.
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Expect ‘Big Things to Continue’ for Highsmith in 2021
“In his rookie season, the  third-rounder made a tackle on nearly 10 percent of his snaps (9.9 percent tackle rate). This was the second-highest rate among edge defenders last season (min. 400 snaps),” offers Frelund, before noting how that rate is unsustainable over a longer time frame.
But with Highsmith moving into a starting role (thanks to the departure of Bud Dupree in free agency), she expects “big things to continue” for the second-year linebacker.
“The [are] two main reasons for that: 1) In terms of his speed in the first 3 yards traveled, Highsmith ranked in the top 10 percent in 2020; and 2) his hips stayed facing the quarterback even after contact at a rate in the top 15 percent (this helps predict recovery and pursuit of pressure),” she writes.
That said, one can expect Highsmith to be that much more productive than he was in 2020, when the University of Charlotte product contributed 48 total tackles (30 solo), with two sacks, five tackles for loss and six quarterback hits, plus one interception and one pass defensed. Those numbers were good enough for him to earn a spot on Pro Football Focus’ midseason All-Rookie Team as well as its 2021 All-Rookie Team.
Certainly, he will get many more opportunities in 2021, thanks in part to the fact that the Steelers have little in the way of proven depth at outside linebacker behind Highsmith and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt.
Other Underappreciated Players in the AFC North
In case you’re wondering about the other ostensibly underappreciated players in the AFC North, Frelund likes offensive guard Wyatt Teller of the Cleveland Browns, running back J.K. Dobbins of the Baltimore Ravens and safety Jessie Bates of the Cincinnati Bengals.
As for her reasoning, Frelund notes that the Browns averaged “6.15 yards per play with Teller on the field versus 5.54 without him,” while Dobbins’ “7.0 yards per rush outside the tackles was not only the highest average [in the NFL] but he was also the only running back to have an average over 6.0 yards on such runs (min. 50 attempts). His seven rushing touchdowns against stacked boxes were tied for fifth in the NFL,” she relates.
As for Bates: “Don’t let his somewhat-moderate total of three interceptions in 2020 fool you,” says Frelund. “Of the 34 passes thrown his way in coverage, Bates allowed 19 receptions and had 12 pass breakups, which is impressive work.”
In 2020, Frelund named defensive end Stephon Tuitt as the most underappreciated player on the Steelers. He went on to produce 45 total tackles (33 solo), with 11 sacks, 25 quarterback hits, 10 tackles for loss, three passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
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