With a lot of money committed to one side of the football in today’s NFL, it helps to have a trade or two at premium positions.
That’s exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers have defensively, at least according to CBS Sports’ Cody Benjamin.
Benjamin, who identified the best deals at each position in the NFL, highlighted outside linebacker Alex Highsmith and cornerback Patrick Peterson as best deals at EDGE and cornerback Thursday. Pittsburgh was the only team in the NFL with two players selected as top defensive offers, while the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers had two players as top offers offensively in quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and left tackle Rashawn Slater, respectively .
Highsmith is a good buy for the Steelers — so far. Highsmith, who is coming off a career-high 14.5 sacks in 2022, is in line for a lucrative contract extension, one that should be completed before the start of training camp in Latrobe at Saint Vincent College on July 26.
“In three years, the former third-stringer has gone from serviceable backup to disruptive TJ Watt sidekick, excelling while replacing the injured All-Pro in 2022, with 14.5 sacks. He might be best suited as a No. 2 , but it still represents a new deal in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers value defensive difference-making more than most.” Benjamin writes and highlights Highsmith as a top trade on the edge.
The former walk-on at Charlotte is something of a development story for the Steelers. A third-round pick in 2020, Highsmith sat behind Bud Dupree before stepping into a starting role late as a rookie due to Dupree’s knee injury. After that, the Steelers let Dupree walk free and elevated Highsmith into the starting role.
In his first full season starting in 2021, Highsmith showed flashes in the process recording 6.0 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. He took off in 2022, recording 14.5 sacks and a league-high five forced fumbles, though he was somehow passed over for a Pro Bowl nod.
Steelers Depot’s Dave Bryan made an early projection of a Highsmith contract extension 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.
Even then, as the 13th-highest-paid edge rusher in the NFL, based on Bryan’s expected extension, Highsmith would remain a huge trade for the Steelers.
In the secondary, Peterson was a surprise pick for a top Benjamin trade.
The Steelers signed Peterson to a two-year, $14 million deal in free agency shortly after losing Cameron Sutton to the Detroit Lions.
“Entering his age-33 season, the longtime Cardinals star isn’t necessarily a lockdown starter anymore, but his two-year Vikings run proved he still has timely ball skills. Now, along with Minkah Fitzpatrick, he’s ready to steal a lease in the Steel City,” Benjamin writes about Peterson.
Peterson turns 33 next month, which means he’s much, much closer to the end of his career than anything else. That said, he is coming off a very strong 2022 season, recording five interceptions and earning the best PFF grade of his career since the 2018 season in Arizona.
While he has primarily been a boundary corner for nearly his entire Hall of Fame career, Peterson has hinted throughout the offseason on his “All Things Covered” podcast with cousin and former Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden that he will be moving around quite a bit for the Steelers defensively. At first, that seemed like a bit of a stretch for a cornerback who is on the wrong side of 30 and played some of his best football in zone coverage.
But early returns from OTAs and minicamp have Peterson moving all over the Steelers defense in the secondary, giving the offense new looks.
Peterson was upset with exactly how he’s been used, but said he could have a similar role in 2023 that Sutton had the past two seasons. Sutton replaced Steven Nelson as an outside corner in 2021 and 2022, but moved all around the defense, bumping into the slot, serving as the linebacker and participating in post-snap rotations to give quarterbacks different looks.
Being able to move around and become a defensive chess piece has the potential to add additional stress on offenses that need to account for fluid players like him. With Peterson’s experience and high football IQ, moving him to the slot or elsewhere on the field could create chances for him to bait the quarterback and jump routes while hiding any speed lost in his age-33 season.
If he can maintain his level of play from Minnesota in 2022 to 2023 with Pittsburgh, Peterson will be a great buy for the Steelers, especially on a top-to-bottom loaded defense.