2022 Exit Interviews: Alex Highsmith and Malik Reed

New York Jets v Pittsburgh Steelers
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There was a stark contrast between the Steelers next two outside linebackers after T.J. Watt.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 NFL season has come to a close. Because the Steelers are among the 31 teams who did not finish fulfilling their ultimate goal, they are in the process of wrapping up their season and moving forward into 2023.

Since the Steelers conduct exit interviews with all their players, we here at BTSC thought we would do the same. By outlining two players each day, we will be able to look at their season in retrospect as well as looking toward the future. Since Coach Tomlin has previously stated he starts his interviews with rookies, first year players, and those heading into free agency, we will do the same. To start, we will pair a potential free agent with a first-year player as we work through this process to eventually cover the entire Steelers roster.

Next up are outside linebackers Alex Highsmith and Malik Reed.

Alex Highsmith

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers
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Position: Outside Linebacker
Years with the Steelers: 3
Years in the NFL: 3
Contract Status: Signed through 2023
Contract Details: $2,953,073 salary cap hit for 2023. Would cost the Steelers $208,073 in dead money if released and would save $2,745,000.
Games played in 2022: 17 regular season
Games started in 2022: 17 regular season
Snaps (regular season): 941 (defense), 48 (special teams)
PFF score: 78.0 (24th of 120)
Notable stats: Highsmith led to Steelers with 14.5 sacks and led the NFL with five forced fumbles in 2022. Highsmith had 63 tackles, 12 of which were for a loss, and a pass defensed.

Notes: In his third season in Pittsburgh, Alex Highsmith continued his trend of doubling his sack output from the previous season. Although much more successful with T.J. Watt in the lineup— only 3.5 sacks came in the seven games Watt missed— just being another threat opposite the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year is all Steelers fans could ask for. Still under contract for one more season, the bigger question for 2023 with Highsmith will be if he’s playing on his last year of his rookie deal or if they come together and get a new contract done during the offseason.

Malik Reed

NFL: OCT 30 Steelers at Eagles
Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Position: Outside Linebacker
Years with the Steelers: 1
Years in the NFL: 4
Contract Status: Free Agent
Contract Details: Contract expiring with no dead money.
Games played in 2022: 14 regular season
Games started in 2022: 2 regular season
Snaps (regular season): 396 (defense), 58 (special teams)
PFF score: 63.8 (72nd of 120)
Notable stats: Reed had 25 tackles, one of which was for loss, and 1.0 sacks with two passes defensed.

Notes: Over the Steelers last five games, Reed was a healthy scratch in three of them as the Steelers took on the run-heavy Baltimore Ravens twice as well as the Cleveland Browns. Going from the third option at outside linebacker to not even getting a helmet does not say a lot for Reed and the Steelers wanting to move this relationship forward. Most expect Reed to have played his last game in a Steelers uniform as he will want to move on to a different situation and Steelers look for somebody else as the reserve option for their two talented outside linebackers.

Make sure you check back each day for another set of exit interviews. If you have missed any of the previous articles, they are listed here:

Kenny Pickett & Mason Rudolph
George Pickens & Miles Boykin
DeMarvin Leal & Larry Ogunjobi
Connor Heyward & Zach Gentry
Mark Robinson & Devin Bush
Jaylen Warren & Benny Snell Jr.
Calvin Austin III & Derek Watt
Najee Harris & Terrell Edmunds
Pat Freiermuth & Trent Scott
Dan Moore Jr. & Jesse Davis
Isaiahh Loudermilk & Chris Wormley
Tre Norwood & Damontae Kazee
Pressley Harvin III & Marcus Allen
Kendrick Green & J.C. Hassenauer

Mock Draft Monday: Steelers look to add a disruptive CB with top pick

COLLEGE FOOTBALL NOV 19 Illinois at Michigan
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In the latest mock draft, the Steelers look to add another “Witherspoon” to their defensive secondary.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are heading into the 2023 offseason. With free agency as the next big event to shape next season’s roster, it will be followed by the NFL draft in April. The Steelers will have a number of decisions with players who were on the 2022 roster and will have the opportunity to add some free agent acquisitions before making their first draft selection. The NFL combine and player pro days will also shape the team’s big boards before the draft.

When talking about mock drafts or NFL free agency, you have to first identify the team’s main needs for the offseason. Before any gains or losses in free agency, there are some who would like to see the Steelers go with either offensive line or defensive line with their first-round pick. Others feel inside linebacker or cornerback could be on top of the list. With plenty of chances for the Steelers to shape their roster prior to April, their goal is usually to get into position to draft the best player available rather than target a specific position. When it comes to what position the team will select with their first pick, it is certainly up for debate.

In one of the latest mock drafts by Pro Football Network, they have the Steelers addressing the cornerback position before anything else. With one of the Steelers top corners in Cam Sutton being a free agent, the Steelers could use some additional talent either through the draft or free agency. Since the Steelers could go in any number of directions with their first selection, it is important to look at all the possibilities presented by various mock draft outlets.

Check out the Steelers 17th pick:

17. Pittsburgh Steelers | Devon Witherspoon | CB | Illinois | JR |

Being early in the draft process, there may be some players most fans are not familiar with. If this is the case, here is a breakdown of Witherspoon according to thedraftnetwork.com:

Devon Witherspoon NFL Draft Scouting Report

CB, Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon is an aggressive, physical cornerback with man coverage skills and ball production, making him a mighty fine NFL draft prospect who can serve in a high-impact role. Witherspoon is very combative at the catch point and is eager to transition into a tackler’s role, offering an NFL team a viable inside or outside option at the next level.

Originally committed to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, Witherspoon experienced a late flurry of offers ahead of the start of his freshman year after he elevated his grades and avoided being academically ineligible. He ultimately settled on signing with the Illini, joining the team his freshman year after missing the start of summer camp. He went on to become the only member of Illinois’ 2019 recruiting class to start a game as a freshman and led the team in special teams tackles that season. By 2020, he was a starter at corner and he hasn’t looked back—making him a three-year starter at a premier NFL position with special teams success also lingering on his resume; a healthy mix.

Witherspoon has an impressive nose for the football in every way. He does well to find the football in man coverage and play the hands of receivers, and he has excellent rally skills from depth to step up and find the football in run support on the perimeter. He’s developed a reputation this season as a big hitter thanks to some instinctive plays to flash and react to the football on quick-hitting plays outside—he brings excellent confidence in his tackling form through contact to generate big hits and collision ball carriers. I have been impressed with his timing as a defender to sync his challenges of the football in the air with the arrival of the ball, allowing him to rake the hands of receivers and break up passes. These instincts are impressive when you consider that he’s only been playing football since his junior year of high school, leaving room for even more upward growth in his play as he continues to immerse himself in the game.

I do think he’s a better man defender than he is in zone, although he was effective at both during this past season with Illinois. But eyes in the backfield take away his rarest quality as a man corner and open the door for him to be manipulated and moved by savvy quarterbacks. The hitting power Witherspoon offers in spite of his stature is a testament to his form and confidence, but he is a player who will have some size questions about playing in the NFL—ideally, your man defender can press up in the face of receivers and disrupt the timing of the route early at the line of scrimmage. Witherspoon’s ability to do so was present in college but is a bit of a projection to the NFL if he’s going to play around his current listed weight. If not, he may be destined to play the nickel. The good news? Nickel defenders have never been more valuable in the NFL—especially ones who can tackle and fit the run like Witherspoon. But there is always a stigma on positional value for a “third” corner, so the question will be which NFL teams have conviction that he can stay and thrive outside.

Witherspoon should have little issue appealing to NFL teams with his play style, physical skills, and versatility. The question will be whether or not teams grant him the chance to play outside or if they feel his frame limits him to only be effective in the slot. I believe he has a chance to be a winning player on the perimeter and therefore would offer him the opportunity to play there first. With more refinement, he could thrive in a man-heavy system and be an impact starter.

Top Reasons to Buy In:

Experience and success in man coverage

Tremendous ball skills

Tone-setting personality

Good tackler

Special teams resume

Top Reasons For Concern:

Lean frame offers questions against powerful perimeter WRs

Can be over-eager to make a play at times

Will teams try to box him into playing the slot?

For all you who are preparing yourself for the draft, what do you think of the selection? Would you be on board with the Steelers taking Witherspoon with their first pick? Or do you feel there is a better player at this position, a different one who may still be available, or that Witherspoon will not make it to the 17th pick? Personally, much like last week, I have no problem with this selection as long as the Steelers feel Witherspoon is the right fit for what they want to do in the secondary. To reiterate again what K.T. Smith has said previously, there are cornerbacks selected at the top of the draft that are so talented they can succeed regardless of scheme fit, but most others need to be the right player for the style of defense. Additionally, Witherspoon has been rising up draft boards in recent weeks so it’s difficult to see if he will continue to rise or settle back down to be a selection much lower than 17. Ultimately the NFL Scouting Combine as Witherspoon’s pro day will be a big factor as to whether he will be off the board or considered a reach at pick 17.