Steelers, OLB Alex Highsmith Begin Extension Talks

Although the Steelers have the NFL’s highest-paid edge rusher on their cap sheet, signs continue to point to the team strongly considering making room for an Alex Highsmith extension as well. The T.J. Watt sidekick is going into a contract year, and the team has begun talks on a new deal.

Highsmith confirmed (via’s Brooke Pryor) his agent has started extension talks with the Steelers. The fourth-year pass rusher expressed optimism a deal will be completed, and given the dialogue over the past several months — including a strong endorsement on this front from GM Omar Khan — optimism makes sense.

[RELATED: Steelers Sign OLB Markus Golden]

With Watt out for a chunk of last season due to a pectoral injury, Highsmith stepped forward as Pittsburgh’s stop pass rusher. The former third-round pick tallied 14.5 sacks, the most by a non-Watt Steeler since James Harrison‘s 2008 Defensive Player of the Year season. That number tied for the fifth-most in Steelers history, and Highsmith’s 17.5 sacks over his past 20 games rank second in the NFL. This stands to put the franchise to a decision. It appears the Steelers are angling to keep Highsmith as a long-term Watt complementary presence.

Early optimism notwithstanding, these could be tricky negotiations. Highsmith, 25, zoomed onto the radar for a big payday last season, a showing that also included an NFL-leading five forced fumbles. Highsmith could bet on himself and aim for a big contract year, putting the Steelers to a choice of franchise-tagging him or reaching a deal to prevent a free agency departure. But just three of Highsmith’s 2022 sacks came during the seven games Watt missed. Watt naturally creates favorable matchups for the Steelers’ other pass rushers, but the team viewing Highsmith as a clear No. 2 edge could lead to negotiations beginning at a lower rate.

The Chargers are the NFL’s only team with two edge rushers (Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack) earning more than $20MM on average. The Giants now have two interior D-linemen (Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence) signed to deals in that neighborhood, but Williams is in a contract year. Pittsburgh will be expecting Watt to play at this level for several more years, and a Highsmith re-up would need to accompany his $28MM-per-year salary.

The Steelers have some flexibility here, with Kenny Pickett on a rookie contract and only one offensive player (Diontae Johnson) tied to an eight-figure-per-year deal. But Highsmith could certainly push for an extension north of $15MM per year. The Steelers will likely attempt to keep the price south of $20MM per annum, but while the franchise did not extend Bud Dupree after franchise-tagging him in 2020, it has a history of using this blueprint. Harrison and LaMarr Woodley teamed up on veteran extensions in the early 2010s, with Harrison signing his first extension in 2009 and Woodley joining him in 2011. Woodley stayed in Pittsburgh through the ’13 season. Highsmith’s resume is not quite where Woodley’s was prior to his extension, so it will be interesting to see what numbers emerge here during these talks.

Highsmith checked in as Dupree’s eventual replacement, coming from a mid-major program (Charlotte). Khan extended both Johnson and Minkah Fitzpatrick last summer. With the Steelers preferring to hammer out extensions before the candidate’s walk year, a resolution here should be expected in the coming weeks.

Steelers To Sign OLB Markus Golden

While Bud Dupree left his Pittsburgh visit without a deal, the Steelers are not letting Markus Golden do the same. The veteran edge rusher met with the team today and intends to sign, Adam Schefter of tweets.

The sides agreed on a one-year contract. This comes two-plus months after the Cardinals cut ties with Golden, who enjoyed two stints in Arizona. The ninth-year outside linebacker will now be positioned to work as a rotational rusher behind starters T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.

This signing gives the Steelers four pass rushers who have totaled a double-digit sack season. Altogether, this quartet — Watt, Highsmith, Golden, Cameron Heyward — has combined for 11 such seasons. Golden has contributed three over the course of his career, the most recent coming in 2021 (11 sacks). While Golden did not approach that total last season, he displayed similar pressure numbers by totaling more quarterback hits (20) than he did in 2021 (19).

Golden is heading into his age-32 season, making this signing similar to the Melvin Ingram addition of 2021. The Steelers will obviously hope this turns out better. They ended up trading a disgruntled Ingram to Kansas City, where he closed out his age-32 season. Golden has a more productive recent past compared to Ingram at this point in their respective careers.

Consistency has eluded Golden, however. The former second-round pick surged to a career-best 12.5 sacks in 2016, but a 2017 ACL tear sapped that momentum. Golden did not regain his pre-surgery form in 2018, leading to the Giants taking a one-year flier during the 2019 free agency period. That bet paid off. After trading Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon in consecutive offseasons, the Giants saw Golden lead their 2019 edition in sacks (10). New York placed the rarely used UFA tender on Golden in 2020 but traded him back to Arizona that October. Golden spent the past two-plus seasons with the Cardinals, delivering up-and-down production.

With Chandler Jones out for most of the 2020 season, Golden totaled just three sacks as a Cardinal. The Cards still re-signed Golden to a two-year, $5MM deal in 2021, leading to the 11-sack showing opposite Jones. That production then led to the Cards adding a year to Golden’s deal, though the team’s new regime bailed on that extra year in March. With Jones in Las Vegas last year, Golden totaled just 2.5 sacks — his lowest number since 2017.

This Pittsburgh pact should offer Golden plenty of favorable matchups. Watt and Michael Strahan share the official single-season sack record (22.5), and Highsmith moved himself onto the extension radar with a 14.5-sack slate late year. The Steelers have not received the production they have sought from their top OLB backup in recent years; Ingram and Malik Reed each registered one sack during their respective years in Pittsburgh. (Reed, a 2022 trade acquisition, has since signed with the Dolphins.) Golden should provide a higher floor for this role, as the Steelers — the league’s sack champions from 2017-21 — aim to keep their pass rush elite.

Steelers To Host OLB Markus Golden

Following a second stint with the Cardinals, Markus Golden is on the market again. Arizona’s new regime released the veteran pass rusher earlier this offseason, and he is making a trip to Pittsburgh.

The Steelers are hosting Golden on a visit, The Score’s Jordan Schultz tweets. The meeting will occur Wednesday, CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson tweets. Pittsburgh has locked-in starters, in T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, but is a bit thin behind its dynamic outside linebacker pair.

Golden, 32, had signed a Cardinals extension during the 2022 offseason but was not in the Monti OssenfortJonathan Gannon duo’s plans. The Steelers have also seen some turnover at edge rusher in recent years. After letting Bud Dupree walk in 2021, the Steelers signed Melvin Ingram and then traded him to the Chiefs a few months later. In 2022, they acquired Malik Reed from the Broncos. Reed has since rejoined Vic Fangio in Miami. The Steelers hosted Dupree on a visit earlier this offseason, but the former first-round pick signed with the Falcons.

Enjoying peaks and valleys over the course of his eight-year career, Golden has three double-digit sack seasons — though, none of those came in consecutive years. After a breakthrough 2016 slate included 12.5 sacks, Golden suffered an ACL tear early in the 2017 season. The Giants took a flier on Golden, who hit free agency with little momentum in 2019, and were rewarded with a 10-sack season. New York then placed a UFA tender on Golden in 2020 before trading him back to Arizona during that season. Lining up opposite Chandler Jones in 2021, Golden notched 11 sacks and four forced fumbles.

The Cards had re-signed Golden to a two-year, $5MM contract in 2021 but last year gave him an incentive-laden extension that pushed the deal through 2023. Despite Arizona receiving strong seasons from J.J. Watt and Zach Allen, their top edge rusher only totaled 2.5 sacks. Even though the sack count did not rival 2021, Golden posted similar pressure numbers. He tallied 20 QB hits in 2022 — one more than his 2021 number. Having played in 3-4 defenses throughout his career, Golden did not appear a fit for Gannon’s Eagles-imported defense.

With the Steelers hosting Dupree in March and Golden this week, they are clearly exploring a depth addition. They have several options. If Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney, Frank Clark and Leonard Floyd are deemed out of Pittsburgh’s price range, the likes of Justin Houston, Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Quinn, Carlos Dunlap, Kyle Van Noy and Dawuane Smoot are among the veteran edge defenders available.

As of now, the Steelers roster Quincy Roche and fourth-round pick Nick Herbig behind Watt and Highsmith. It seems the team is aiming to enter the season with a better No. 3 OLB.