When the Steelers picked up the 2019 fifth-year option on linebacker Bud Dupree back in the spring of 2018, many fans screamed bloody murder.
After all, how could the team pick the option for $9.2 million on a player who, to that point, had 14.5 sacks in his first three seasons.
We all know how that turned out. Dupree followed up a solid 2018 season with a breakout year in 2019, setting career highs across the board for tackles (68), sacks (11.5), tackles for a loss (16) and quarterback hits.
He became so valuable, the team is now considering its options on ways to keep him in Pittsburgh before the free-agent period begins in March.
There will be no similar questions with All-Pro T.J. Watt. It seems a no-brainer the Steelers will want to pick up the fifth-year option on Watt before the May 30 deadline.
After all, Watt has produced 34.5 sacks in his first three seasons, the most of any player in team history in his first three NFL seasons, including an AFC-best 14.5 in 2019 as he earned first-team All-Pro status.
What will it cost?
Watt, the 30th pick in the 2017 draft, will earn the average 2019 salary of the top 25 edge rushers in the league in 2021 assuming the Steelers do pick up his option.
That works out to $9.419 million. Not a bad raise for a player who initially signed a four-year, $9.258-million contract with the team as a rookie.
Watt had a salary of just $1.306 million in 2019 with a cap hit of $2.52 million, making him one of the best bargains in football.
But the days of having the 25-year-old outside linebacker on the cheap are coming to a close for the Steelers. He'll earn a base salary of $1.727 million in 2020 with a cap hit of $2.945 million. Then, he'll make the $9.419 million in 2021.
Given the cost of premium edge rushers, Watt could be the first non-quarterback to get a $100-million total package from the Steelers.
Khalil Mack is currently the gold standard when it comes to contracts for edge rushers. He received a 6-year, $141-million deal that averages $23.5 million per year after being traded from the Raiders to Bears in 2018.
Mack was a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winner, having won it in 2016 when he had 78 tackles, 11 sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception.
But since Watt's rookie season in 2017, Watt has more sacks (34.5-31.5), forced fumbles (15-13) and interceptions (3-1).
Needless to say, Watt, who will just turn 27 when he reaches free agency in 2022, is going to want a contract in the same range as Mack, if not more.
By then, the $18.6 million the Steelers will have paid Watt in his first five seasons will seem like a distant memory. And it's a big reason why the Steelers won't be able to afford to give Dupree a long-term deal this offseason, most likely placing a transition or franchise tag on him instead.
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