Kovacevic: Can’t risk removing Bud

It's New Year's Eve, and the predictions for 2020 will be pouring at the pace of champagne.

None will top the one T.J. Watt shared with me on the afternoon of May 29. This was after one of the Steelers' OTA sessions at the Rooney Complex. The topic was Bud Dupree's frustrating NFL career to that point and, with Watt passionately defending his bookend outside linebacker, I'd just interjected that Watt, unlike Dupree, had been producing splash since his rookie year.

“I get that," Watt came back. "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 Bud’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.”

By year's end, so was everyone else, huh?

In fact, everyone's flipped the script from freaking out over the $9.25 million the front office agreed to pay Dupree in 2019 to fretting over how they'll keep him from free agency. Well, 11.5 sacks and countless generally superb performances later, that'll cost either a long-term contract or a franchise tag, the price for which was $15.2 million in the NFL this year.

Talk about "a really big year."

I couldn't help but remind T.J. of his prediction Monday at the Rooney Complex, where the players were gathered for the locker cleanout following the elimination loss in Baltimore:

Good stuff, huh?

If you didn't watch that, I'd advise pushing play. He's the NFL's best defensive player. He's worth it.

And in addition to his actual answer, it should probably be underscored that he went out of his way to include this: "Just to think that there's a possibility that we might not be together next year is very unfortunate and sad."

This, too: "Bud's gonna get paid somewhere if it isn't here."

Ouch. You can hear my question up there. It had zip to do with Bud's contract status.

But trust me, that's highly representative of the room as a whole. Joe Haden, who spoke with media as long Monday as he had the previous day in Baltimore, brought this up with gusto, saying he "really, really" hopes the team keeps Bud.

I feel really, really strongly the same way, and not just because, as my columns over the years will support, I've believed in Bud from the beginning. No, it's much more about the broader picture his departure would paint for what just might be the NFL's best defense. Because it isn't just about Bud benefiting T.J., as he addressed above, but also all the other puzzle pieces.

Here's one of my favorite examples, this from the third quarter Sunday:

Cam Heyward gets the double-team treatment right off the snap, by Baltimore linemen James Hurst (74) and Bradley Bozeman (77). But as the tight end, Hayden Hurst (81), chips off Bud to run a route, Bud begins rushing Robert Griffin III. As does T.J. in squirting by the big right tackle, Orlando Brown (78). It's as if RG3's world begins to collapse around him.

And who gets the spoils?

Cam does. Because Bozeman had to release him to go at Bud.

T.J. lit up when I revisited that, calling it "blood in the water." And Bud took it further: "All year long, T.J. and I were able to help each other, but we also created one-on-one matchups for Cam. All three of us played a big part in each other's progress this year. I really believe that."

I hadn't even cited that play yet. When I did, Bud observed with a grin, "Yeah, yeah, that's fun. All of us in the backfield at the same time, and Cam made a grown man's play there, huh?"

Sure did.

Equally sure, it needs to continue.

Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and, in this case, Omar Khan need to figure it out. All three did well to draft Dupree and, ultimately, to develop him. Next comes the hard part.

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