PITTSBURGH — Bud Dupree didn't get offended last summer when the Pittsburgh Steelers declined to negotiate a contract extension. It was fine, the outside linebacker said repeatedly, pointing out it simply gave him a chance to bet on himself.
A year later, after the breakout season Dupree insists is no fluke, the stakes are even higher. The Steelers placed the franchise tag on Dupree in March after the 2015 first-round pick had a career-high 11 1/2 sacks in 2019, and teamed with T.J. Watt to form one of the NFL's most potent edge rush duos. Yet Dupree failed to iron out a long-term deal with the Steelers by July's deadline, meaning Dupree once again finds himself playing for his future.
While admitting it's "bittersweet"' because he understands this will almost certainly be his final season with the Steelers, Dupree isn't exactly losing sleep over it. When asked if he came close to signing a new contract, the 27-year-old flashed his trademark good-natured sarcasm.
“We came close to a two-year, $200-million deal,” Dupree said with a laugh, before pointing out it fell through because Pittsburgh needs the cash to lock up pending free agent defensive end Cam Heyward.
There's more than a little truth to that. Keeping Heyward, a longtime captain with significant ties to the city, figures to be a priority. And Watt figures to earn a massive raise next summer. Dupree perhaps not so much, at least not in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers also used their third-round pick in the draft to select Alex Highsmith, who figures to have the first crack at replacing Dupree in 2021. Still, Dupree isn't angry about the way things have shaken out. Though his representatives filed a grievance with the NFL Players Association asking to be classified as a defensive end — a position group whose one-year franchise tender is $2 million higher than the $15.7 million allotted outside linebackers — he chalked it up to the cost of doing business.
Even with his future uncertain, Dupree knows he has control of the present. For now, that's enough.
“I’m in the driver’s seat of my career right now,” he said. “And everything will be in the place at the end of the year.”
His words echo his sentiments entering 2019, when Dupree was looking to prove the Steelers made the right decision when they picked up his fifth-year option despite middling production. He averaged just five sacks a season during his first four years, tantalizing with his speed and power but too often finding himself a half-step from making a consistent impact on games.
A deep dive into his craft during the off-season with pass-rush guru Chuck Smith combined with growing attentiveness to defensive co-ordinator Keith Butler's system turned loose Dupree last season. It wasn't just the sacks, it was the little plays too, like the way he knifed through a double team in the final minutes against Indianapolis and dropped running back Marlon Mack for a 3-yard loss. Adam Vinatieri's potential winning kick sailed wide on the next snap and the Steelers escaped with a 26-24 victory.
It was the kind of play Dupree might not have made earlier in his career, one that required the right mix of technique and might. They began arriving with regularity last season, making Dupree practically indispensable to a unit that led the NFL in sacks for a third straight year — and almost singlehandedly kept the Steelers in the playoff picture until Christmas despite losing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2 with a season-ending right elbow injury. Dupree played at least 90% of the snaps in 10 of 16 games, a testament to his conditioning and his effectiveness.
While he stressed he'll come off the field this season when he's “tired,” he's also well aware how important the next four months are to the arc of his career. A significant step back could seriously hinder a lucrative payday in free agency. So could the post-pandemic NFL financial landscape.
“That is a big thing to think about,” Dupree said. “But at the end of the day, I think everything will handle itself. Everybody is just looking for the best.”
Even if it leads to the best — or at the very least, the rest — of Dupree's career being spent outside of Pittsburgh.
“I just need to keep working hard and do what I do," he said.
Namely, line up across from Watt and wreak as much havoc as possible.
“He has always been a well-rounded player in the run and pass," Watt said. "I just see him being super eager to learn and be able to be that staple of the right side of the defence .”
NOTES: G David DeCastro (lower body) missed practice on Monday. Coach Mike Tomlin said he's hopeful the Pro Bowler will be back soon. ... Tomlin paid tribute to longtime Georgetown University men's basketball coach John Thompson, who died on Monday, calling Thompson a “mentor.” ... The Steelers are off Tuesday.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press