One of the most popular conversation pieces about a player who has a career year in the season before he is set to hit unrestricted free agency is that he knows he’s in a ‘contract year’. While the opportunity for a life-changing cash-in will obviously be motivation to anybody in any context, however, sometimes the timing just lines up with a player’s natural progression.
Many players are still very much in development and on a consistently positive upward trend during their third, fourth, or fifth seasons. In some case, they may have had their development stunted by injuries suffered earlier in their career.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is one of those who doesn’t believe that you can simply chalk up Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree’s best season to date through eight games to the fact that he is playing for a contract in 2020.
“I don’t think” that’s the case, he told reporters earlier this week, via a transcript provided by the team’s media department. “I think he wants to compete and do good. This is a team game, a team sport and he has a great amount of ability. He’s had a chance to use it. Let’s hope he keeps playing better”.
I think it’s easy to interpret Butler’s comment that he has “had a chance to use” his ability as being a comment upon the health issues that have plagued Dupree since his second season in 2016. He has dealt with meaningful injuries in each of the past three seasons that he has had to play through, all of which legitimately likely held him back.
This is the first season since his rookie year in 2015 in which Dupree is as healthy as a professional football player could reasonably. And all of a sudden, without shoulder injuries, without groin injuries, without lingering ankle injuries, he is showing better bend around the arc, better strength at the point of contact, better handfighting with tackles.
And he is also still a relatively young player, especially considering his development timeline. He was far from polished when he came out of college, where he didn’t even have a proper position coach, and one wonders how much he even got out of Joey Porter as his instructor.
Now, with that said, Dupree himself has told reporters that he goes out on the field conscious of the situation. “I know what’s at stake for me”, he said after Sunday’s game, in which he recorded two sacks, forced a fumble and recovered it, and had a critical run stop. “But also I know what’s at stake for the team”, he added.
The ‘contract year’ is not a magic elixir that makes a player suddenly better than he is capable of being. There are times where a player’s best season of his entire career coincides with the year before he is set to hit free agency. And money is always a motivating factor. But I think Butler is right when he says that what we’re seeing from Dupree in 2019 isn’t just because he sees the dollar signs.