Bud Dupree is going to get paid -- in a big way.
The only question now is whether that big payday will come from the Steelers or another team once this season is completed.
The 2015 first-round draft pick is having his best season -- 32 tackles, six sacks, eight tackles for a loss and nine quarterback hits in the Steelers' first eight games. He's also got two passes defended and has forced two fumbles, serving as the perfect complement to T.J. Watt on the outside.
Many thought the Steelers were crazy when they picked up his fifth-year option at $9.2 million this season, but it's hard to imagine where the team would be right now without Dupree helping to provide pressure opposite Watt.
Thing is, that $9.2 million will look like a bargain in 2020. Dupree will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and the Steelers will have a tough choice to make. Do they let him walk without a viable replacement on the roster? Or, do they try to re-sign him, knowing the going rate for edge rushers is upwards of $12 million per year?
Dupree isn't concerned about that now, but he is thinking long-term. He saw the contracts with the Packers signed by his former teammate at Kentucky, Za'Darius Smith (4 years, $66 million), and Preston Smith (4 years, $52 million) in the offseason and sees one coming in his future.
"I’m just excited. Those are life-changing moments," Dupree said. "I went in the first round, but first-round money is way different from second-contract money. It’s just fun and exciting seeing some of those guys, that I’m close to getting paid. I’ve got to continue to ball so that teams that I’m playing against and teams that are watching say, ‘I might want him on my team.’"
Dupree has made $18.5 million to this point in his career, with half of that coming this season. That $9.2-million he's making this season caused a lot of consternation among fans in the offseason, but he's earning every dollar of it.
Even his critics -- a very vocal group that went after him on a regular basis -- have quieted. The guy who was the player seemingly everyone loved to hate is enjoying the silence.
Not that he cared about the criticism.
"I don’t play for the fans. I love the fans, but I don’t play for the fans," Dupree told me. "I play, first of all, for love (of the game). Second of all, I play for my family. And when I say my family, I mean my teammates and my immediate family — my mom and my dad and my kids. And I put myself in there, too. Those are the things I worry about. For somebody outside of that, I don’t worry about it. For the people outside of this locker room, who don’t see how I work — they don’t even know me — I don’t worry about what they’re saying."
But some of it was very hurtful. And personal. There were times Dupree lashed out on social media. He regrets those instances. But he is, after all, human.
"It ain’t easy," he said. "At the end of the day, I’m a grown man and I’ve got to hold back. People say some stuff and it makes me want to say stuff. You can’t lash out. You have to bite your tongue. It works out better, so I’m cool."
And he can't wait to see what happens in the future, whether that's in Pittsburgh or elsewhere.
The Steelers currently are estimated to have $6.2 million in available cap space for 2020 per Spotrac. But, as usually is the case, they have wiggle room to create additional space, if needed.
Dupree is one of two key pieces of the defense, along with nose tackle Javon Hargrave, who are scheduled to be free agents at the end of the season. At the start of the season, it would have seemed a no-brainer that the Steelers needed to sign Hargrave and would let Dupree walk.
In fact, when they signed Anthony Chickillo in the offseason to a two-year, $8-million deal, it looked like that would be the case and Chickillo would be the placeholder at right outside linebacker in 2020.
But with Dupree's breakout year, that plan could change. The Steelers could release Chickillo in the offseason with a savings of $5 million, a move that would free up nearly enough cash to sign Dupree.
And if they can't sign him to a long-term deal, the Steelers could choose to place the franchise tag on him. That number was $15.4 million in 2019, while the transition tag cost $13.2 million.
Would Dupree balk at having the franchise tag placed on him?
"I would show up. That’s not too bad. I’ll show up," Dupree said of the franchise numbers. "I’ll show up and continue to work hard and let them and my agent continue to handle everything."
• Rookie Tony Brooks-James confirmed to me the Steelers will use him as their kick returner in Sunday's game against the Rams. The Steelers rank 30th in the league in average starting field positions on kickoffs -- the Cowboys and Chiefs are worse -- with their drives starting at the 23.3. They've tried both Ryan Switzer and Johnny Holton there, with similar results. Switzer has averaged 18.3 yards per kick return on eight attempts, while Holton is also at 18.3 yards on three attempts. Brooks-James averaged 23.8 yards per return at Oregon, including 25.7 yards and 26.1 yards in his final two seasons, when he was the Ducks' primary kick-returner. "I think we’re going to try it out," Brooks-James told me. "I don’t know that for sure, but I’ve talked to Coach Danny (Smith). Me and him have had that conversation. We’ll see where that goes." To the end zone would be a good spot. The Steelers haven't had a kick return for a touchdown in their past 25 games, with JuJu Smith-Schuster last doing it in the final game of the 2017 regular season against Cleveland. "Really?" a surprised Brooks-James said when learning Smith-Schuster had been a return man. "I didn’t know that at all. We’ve definitely got some scores coming up in that part of our game. Don’t give up on it just yet." -- Lolley
• There are a lot of reasons the Steelers were not interested in trading for Le'Veon Bell. First and foremost was the fact they don't really have any draft capital to move after sending out picks to acquire Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick. But even more important is that Bell's contract calls for a guaranteed salary of $8.5 million in 2020 with a $5 million roster bonus. The Steelers were most certainly not adding a player to their roster who is due $13.5 million in 2020, even if he only would have cost them pennies on the dollar this year. Not with the looming contract issues they have on their current roster. Bell's agent, Adisa Bakari, played it fast and loose earlier this season, telling people there were multiple teams interested in Bell when the reality was that the Jets were really his only option. He's playing that same game again now to try to create a trade market in the offseason. There was never going to be a reunion in Pittsburgh. That was a creation of Bakari's imagination. I've been told by multiple people in the know that the Steelers did not inquire about his availability. -- Lolley
• Former referee Paul Stewart, who had a run as the most flamboyant and controversial official in the NHL, got some attention recently with his proposal that if video reviews determine that a play ending in a goal was offside, the goal should be allowed to count unless it is evident that the violation actually played a part in the goal being scored. That's an interesting suggestion, but apparently not one Penguins players would like to see go into effect. Fact is, a random sampling of opinions failed to turn up any support for Stewart's idea, and it's hard to argue with the logic behind their positions. "There wouldn't be a play to begin with if there was offsides. ... That whole series of events wouldn't have happened," Bryan Rust said. "I think the current rule is as good as it can be, given the situation." If anything, Jack Johnson was even more adamant about how ill-conceived he considers Stewart's proposal to be. "Once you know it's offside, it's offside," he said. "The play should be dead. Because you're doing video review, you're making sure that (the call) was absolutely correct. If you're just going to ignore it, you might as well get rid of video review completely." -- Dave Molinari in New York
• Most NHL players go through stretches during which they feel snake-bit because they are unable to avoid injuries or convert scoring chances. And then there's Zach Aston-Reese. Get a blood sample from him, and it would probably be about 50 percent venom, considering all the medical issues and offensive miseries he's endured since breaking in with the Penguins during the 2017-18 season. Turns out, though, that such misfortune -- at least when it comes to staying healthy -- is nothing new for him. "My first two years at Northeastern, I had the craziest injuries," Aston-Reese said. "Like, my teammate stepped on me and sliced my fingers, and in that same game I tore a ligament in my wrist. Later that year, I had mono and a separated shoulder at the same time. I think it's just a two-year curse wherever I start. Hopefully, it's over for now." Perhaps it is, because he was one of just nine Penguins players to dress for each of their first 15 games this season. -- Molinari
• The Penguins scored four unanswered goals during the second period at Boston Monday to take a 4-3 lead into the intermission, then gave up three goals during the final 20 minutes to end up with 6-4 loss. It was their second defeat in regulation when leading after 40 minutes in the past few weeks. In fact, it was their second such loss in the past three games. (It also happened Oct. 23 at Tampa Bay.) What's so striking is that they were up after two periods 39 times last season, and didn't lose any of those games in regulation, going 36-0-3. Players seem to be divided on whether their recent difficulties protecting a second-period lead is a significant problem or a mere quirk. "You don't want to be a team known for giving up leads, because points are so big now," Jake Guentzel said. "We have to find a way to clean that up, get the job done." Justin Schultz, however, is a bit less of an alarmist, "We're not concerned about it," he said. "We think we've been playing well. We'll just continue what we've been doing." -- Molinari
• The search by Travis Williams and Bob Nutting for a new GM hasn't been a big hit with people inside the Major League Baseball community to this stage, but that comes with all kinds of asterisks, which I'll explain in a moment.
First, the decision to hire the search firm Korn Ferry, which I'd heard about Tuesday but didn't see as a big deal, actually isn't a big deal. That's because there are a bunch of ways to use a search firm, the preeminent one being the way Pitt butchered its search for Jamie Dixon's successor as basketball coach -- classic cronyism between Scott Barnes and Kevin Stallings -- and the other being where the firm merely makes connections with potential parties who might not feel comfortable reaching out because of current employment status. I'm told the latter's the one in play here. Hence, not a big deal.
Second, I've been told Williams and Nutting have developed a leaning toward a more analytics-oriented 'Ivy-league' type for the position. And I mean I've been told that emphatically, and I'm printing it here for that reason even though my own feel from Williams and Nutting themselves had been that they'd be looking for more of a hybrid stats/scouting background. There's actually more in the latter category than ever, as the two schools have merged in the past decade.
So, why hasn't it been a big hit?
Here's the most prominent of those asterisks: People naturally covet these jobs for themselves. People naturally believe they're best qualified. So when people hear about a potential outsider -- and that's still how the all-analytics types are viewed by baseball lifers -- there's going to be a broader blowback.
We'll see. -- Dejan Kovacevic
• Similarly not a big deal, Kevan Graves, the interim GM, will get a formal interview to stay on as GM. That's standard procedure for interim positions, and there's no way Graves wouldn't get one after Nutting handpicked him upon firing Neal Huntington. What is a big deal in this context, though, is that Graves is getting an interview with the Giants for their GM opening. Because that applies pressure and maybe even adds an element of prestige to someone who'd been an employee under Huntington for 11 years. -- DK
• Don't fear Graves' link to Huntington. I've written this a million times, but there was a two-man head to baseball operations, and that was Huntington, Kyle Stark and no one else. Graves was the rules/translations ace, though he also was trusted with some more pure baseball matters, including the occasional transaction. So he's done everything from an execution standpoint. What no one could know -- and he's only 39 -- is to what extent he'd show the savvy, the ingenuity required of the position. Also, whether or not he can evaluate talent. -- DK
• Looking for proof of that separation between Graves and the front office? One of his first acts as interim GM was to outright James Marvel, the Pirates' Minor-League Pitcher of the Year for 2019, and that's a move those guys wouldn't have made in a million years on appearances alone. -- DK
• Ben Cherington, the latest name to arise as a candidate for GM, is cut from similar cloth, though with markedly more experience, having already been the Red Sox's GM in 2011-15 and helped build up Boston's championship roster in 2015. He's been with the Blue Jays since then. But I'll reiterate that names arising and interviews granted are distinct things, and Graves is still the only one I've heard to be definitively getting an interview. -- DK
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