For the third straight summer, a key member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense is staring down a potentially lucrative contract extension with the franchise.
After seeing TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick locked up long-term in recent years, it’s now outside linebacker Alex Highsmith’s turn, ensuring that another homegrown player who continues to come into his own on the field is part of the Steelers’ future defensively.
Just don’t expect the contract extension Highsmith eventually signs with the Steelers to be a huge one, at least according to ESPN’s Brooke Pryor.
In a post to ESPN.com Thursday morning, taking a look at the potential contract extensions for 19 players across the NFL this summer, Pryor singled out Highsmith as the player for the Steelers. She wrote that while she believes an extension could be done sooner rather than later between Highsmith and the franchise, it “doesn’t look likely” that it will be a huge contract extension like the ones Watt, Fitzpatrick and even wide receiver Diontae Johnson got last summer.
“With mega deals negotiated in the past two offseasons for TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers’ expansion to-do list is a little less daunting this summer. The team have engaged Highsmith’s representation, but Highsmith has been reticent about the exact progress between the two sides. A year ago, the Steelers inked Fitzpatrick to his four-year, $73.6 million deal right after mandatory minicamp, a departure from their usual pattern of finalizing contracts toward their self-imposed Week 1 deadline. With general manager Omar Khan again leading negotiations as a 2nd-year general manager, Highsmith could also see a deal sooner rather than later.” Pryor writes for ESPN.com about Highsmith’s contract extension. “Highsmith showed his value in 2022 with a career-best 14.5 sacks, and the Steelers are optimistic about reviving a solid three-man outside linebacker rotation with the addition of Markus Golden. Still, it doesn’t appear that Pittsburgh will shell out a huge contract for Highsmith. A four-year deal in the neighborhood of $14 million a year would give him the fourth-largest cap hit on this year’s Steelers roster.”
The Steelers already have the highest-paid defense in football thanks to the extensions signed in recent years by Watt, Fitzpatrick and captain Cameron Heyward, not to mention the lucrative three-year deal that defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi signed in free agency this offseason with the Steelers.
Chances are they were never going to break the bank for Highsmith, so Pryor’s stance on him not getting a huge contract extension really isn’t that brave. That said, Highsmith will likely command somewhere between $14-$16 million per year on an extension with the Steelers, whether it’s a two-year, three-year or four-year extension this summer.
Steelers Depot’s Dave Bryan did an early projection of a Highsmith contract extension back in early April, and had Highsmith getting a two-year extension between $15 and $17.25 million from the Steelers, which would make him the 13th highest paid edge rusher in the NFL according to Over the Cap.
The two-year extension would keep him under contract through the 2025 season and, in turn, would give him another potential bite of the proverbial apple ahead of his 30th birthday as a free agent.
As part of Bryan’s contract projection for Highsmith with a two-year extension, he has Highsmith receive a $15 million signing bonus and a new 2023 base salary of $1.25 million, which is also fully guaranteed. The cash spending for Highsmith in 2023, according to his projection, would be $16.25 million, the only fully guaranteed money in the deal.
Such a first-year layout in Bryan’s projected deal for Highsmith would provide a new 2023 salary cap hit of $6,458,073. Highsmith is already slated to have a 2023 salary cap hit of $2,951,073, so that would require a $3.507 million increase, which shouldn’t be difficult for the Steelers to handle.
Pryor’s projection of a four-year extension at $14 million per year is a shot in the dark. To have him down as the fourth largest cap hit on this year’s Steelers roster with such an extension is simply wrong.
Highsmith’s 2023 cap hit on even a two-year extension with just over $15 million in new money on average would be about $6.5 million, eighth-highest on the team for 2023. If she’s talking about a three-year extension with $14 million in new money on average , Highsmith’s 2023 cap hit would be even lower than $6.5 million in 2023.
In her projection, Pryor uses the new money average of $14 million as if it’s the cap, whereas she should just use the new money average. That would be fifth on the team for 2023, behind the likes of Watt, Fitzpatrick, Johnson and Heyward. Additionally, an average of $14 million in new money on an extension for Highsmith would rank him as the 16th-highest paid edge rusher in football, lower than Bryan’s contract projection.
At this point with Highsmith and an extension with the Steelers, it’s more about “when” than “if.” Chances are, when a deal is made, it will be much, much closer to Bryan’s projection than the one Pryor threw out there. It won’t break the bank either.