Bud Dupree couldn't care less what anyone thinks of him.
T.J. Watt, the Steelers' infinitely more beloved outside linebacker, couldn't care less what anyone thinks of Bud, either. And not just because he and Bud are buds.
"My favorite thing about Bud," Watt was telling me at the Steelers' OTAs at Rooney Complex, "is that he really doesn't pay attention to what everybody else says about him. He's so confident. And I think that's what we expect of each other, to be that confident in what we're both doing. If you're not confident at the outside linebacker position -- and I mean practice, games, wherever -- then you're not going to make those splash plays you need to make."
From the same Bud whose first four NFL seasons have seen him total 20 sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception? The same Bud who's never topped six sacks or 40 tackles in a single season?
"Bud's improving in that area, each and every day," Watt proceeded, possibly after noticing my left eyebrow raised. "It's tough, man ... if you go back and look at Bud's work last season, he was so close so many times. And finishing plays is a big thing, but he's very special. Trust me, the things he does out there are very special."
OK, this was where I out-loud stopped Watt. What does 'special' mean in this context?
"If you watch him take off ... if Bud and I ran in a straight line, Bud would blow me away. He's so fast, so big, so strong ... his legs are the size of tree trunks. He's a freak of nature. I'm telling you, he can do things out there that I can't do."
And if that sounds like Watt was selling, there's a reason for it: He's heard you. He's heard me. He's heard others who've criticized Dupree for his lack of concrete tangibles. But just to be sure, I brought it up myself with Watt, including that fans love him only a billion times more than Dupree, undoubtedly in large part because Watt's been delivering splash since his debut.
"I get that, but there's a lot more to game than the finish. Bud makes me a better player. The push, the pressure he creates, that benefits me, benefits all of us as a defense. But yeah, the position's about the finish. And I think he's going to have a really big year. I see the work he puts in every day. I see the commitment, the love of football, the love he has for his teammates, the desire to improve. I'm really excited for him, to be honest."
I appreciate Watt's stance. I really do. He's one of the straightest shooters on the team, and he swears by Dupree's impact on his own. There've been times after games where Watt's laid out for me a situation where it was Dupree causing chaos that created a weakness Watt was able to exploit. He'll get even more specific about such a situation later in the week after a chance to digest film.
And yet, the 2019 season will be different. It almost has to be. The Steelers picked up Dupree's $9.2 million fifth-year option because, as Kevin Colbert explained somewhat defensively at the time, most NFL teams would deploy him as a starter based on his results when more closely examined.
But sorry, $9.2 million isn't exactly the pay scale for supporting cast. The statistics by which Dupree should be fairly judged can't be Watt's anymore. They've got to be his own.
I brought this up with Bud himself, of course. And he began by saying simple, "13 ... that's what I should've had."
Sacks, he meant. Instead of 5.5.
"We went through the film, me and the coaches, and I left a lot of plays out there, missing by just a second. They told me I did a great job just getting back there, but that's not enough."
Here's more from our talk:
I like Bud. I've never hidden that. He's got all the requisite fire, but he's also fun, easygoing. And on those couple of occasions where he's gotten himself into thick soup on social media, or when he stunningly ripped James Harrison on the way out, it's come from a good place. He's not mean. He's not remotely capable of creating meaningful drama, if only because no one around would take it seriously.
But he's got to play better. I've heard all of the above from him before, and he's still stayed stuck with the supporting cast. Can't happen again.
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