It’s a fair common understanding in the NFL that, outside of a couple of prized free agents around the league, there is usually no group of players more important to the success or failure of a franchise—particularly in any given season—then their group of second-year players. NFL players are expected to make their greatest leap during the transition from year one to year two.
Which means that the 2016 season will be an awfully important one for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2015 first-round draft pick, outside linebacker Bud Dupree, whom many pegged to be drafted earlier, but managed to slide all the way to the 22nd spot in the round, further than Jarvis Jones fell when the team drafted him back in 2013.
Previously a rarity, both Dupree and Jones played a fair bit in their rookie seasons, even flirting with time logged in the starting lineup. Dupree’s progression was a bit more natural, spending most of the season in a heavy rotation as the second linebacker on the field, but nominally starting the final four games of the season, as well as the Steelers’ two postseason contests.
But the ‘promotion’ did not necessarily translate into a higher quality of performance. In fact, his play leveled off pretty significantly toward the end of the year, with Dupree acknowledging that he had more or less hit the rookie wall, logging over 500 snaps and playing a football season longer than college players are accustomed to for the first time.
Dupree also knows that he left plays on the field during his rookie season, telling ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler about his lack of sack production in his last 10 games, “I feel I could have had way more sacks”. And for a player how knows full well that he “should have made more plays”, in his own words, that sounds like the setup for a crucial time in his professional career.
The Steelers drafted him with the understanding that his game would require some developing, particularly when it comes to the finer details of the outside linebacker position. While it is a position that he spent some time playing in college, even dropping into coverage, it was never one that he was properly taught at that level.
Now he is learning quite a bit from outside linebackers coach Joey Porter and veteran James Harrison, but only he can get the most out of his own natural abilities—physical assets that were the backbone of his recognition as a first-round player, because he certainly did not have the statistics of one.
Unlike his rookie offseason, during which much of the early part was spent at Combines and Pro Days and preparing for the draft, Dupree can finally be centrally focused on improving his game, more or less knowing what his role will be this coming season, and able to simply work toward the goal of improving his ability to do his job. That improvement is something that the Steelers are counting on, for 2016, and for the decade to come.