It didn’t take long at all for T.J. Watt to establish himself as the top outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He immediately started as a rookie and recorded two sacks (and an interception) in his first game. He would go on to record seven sacks as a rookie, the most at the position, and then nearly double that last season with 13. That led the team and helped him get to the Pro Bowl.
With Watt currently nursing a tight hamstring that he experienced after completing Thursday’s conditioning test, however, the focus instead is on Bud Dupree, the other former first-round pick at the position. Heading into his fifth season, all sides know it’s a critical year for the former Wildcat. He posted five and a half sacks last season after six the year before.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who is now (and once again) the position coach for the outside linebacker group, talked about Dupree after practice Friday and his position relative to the defense as a whole. “I think the key for us is how Bud does this year”, Mike Prisuta quoted him as saying, via the team’s website.
“I think he knows the defense a little bit better than he has the last four years. You get that experience and stuff like that, and then doing the little things. Once he starts doing the little things he’s going to be better”.
This is a comment that’s not going to sit well with his detractors, which appears to be the majority of Steelers fans. Even if we assume it to be true that Dupree has a better understanding of the overall defense this year, the response is going to be, why didn’t he know it earlier? Why wasn’t he doing the little things that now expect to see from him after four years in the league?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who thinks what about him or what he’s done in the past. It’s all about what he does this year and from this point forward. Playing under his fifth-year option, he knows that his future—where he will play, and for how much—depends on what he is able to do on the field in 2019, and he should have every motivation to blow everything he has previously done out of the water.
The team has not made significant investments at the outside linebacker position since using a first-round pick there in 2017. The most notable addition in 2018 was undrafted free agent Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, who ran with the second-team defense behind Dupree today.
They also used a sixth-round pick this year on the undersized Sutton Smith, who, as should go without saying, is more of a speed rusher than one of power. Even with Watt out, he was on the third line today, with Anthony Chickillo replacing Watt on the first team and J.T. Jones running second-team with Adeniyi.