As a rookie, Highsmith stepped in the absence of starter Bud Dupree, who experienced a season-ending torn ALC in December.
On Monday (April 26), Tomlin participated in a pre-draft press conference alongside general manager Kevin Colbert and not only confirmed that Highsmith will continue to serve as the Steelers' starting outside linebacker amid Dupree's decision to sign with the Tennessee Titans as a free agent this offseason but also set high expectations for the former third-round draft pick.
"In regards to the loss of Bud and the expectations and the depth and things at that position, the lynchpin to that entire discussion is the natural maturation of Alex Highsmith from Year 1 to Year 2,” Tomlin said. “You know the standard of expectations that we have for our young players moving from [Year] 1 to [Year] 2.He could be the poster boy for that. We need a significant rise in terms of all areas of play from him. But I also think it’s reasonable to expect it given what he’s been exposed to, given the quality young man that he is and his work ethic and the environment we intend to put him in. I think it’s reasonable to expect him to rise up and meet the challenges.”
Highsmith appeared in all 16 games during his rookie season and made five stars, recording 48 total tackles, 2.0 sacks, five tackle for loss and six QB hits in 2020.
Dupree agreed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Titans on March 16, one year after being franchise-tagged by the Steelers last offseason.
Dupree was informed by the Steelers that he would not be franchise tagged again in 2021 earlier this month, leading to his free agency, league sources confirmed to ESPN's Adam Schefter.