Dupree Hopes To Return In 2020, But Understands Business Element Might Prevent It

What will the Pittsburgh Steelers do in regard to outside linebacker Bud Dupree after the 2019 season is over and done with? That’s a question that’s sure to be asked many more times between now and March, the start of the 2020 new league year. Even Dupree doesn’t know yet if he’ll be back with the Steelers in 2020. Even so, on Thursday he was asked to comment on several things related to his potential status past this season.

First, Dupree, who already has a single-season career high of 9.5 sacks entering the team’s Week 15 Sunday night home game against the Buffalo Bills, made it clear that the Steelers didn’t attempt to sign him to a contract extension this past offseason.

“They never tried to extend me,” Dupree said Thursday, according to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “My agent was trying to prepare for it, but it never happened. So I just sort of bet on myself.”

That betting on himself certainly should now pay off for the Steelers former first-round draft pick out of Kentucky as Dupree’s sure to earn at least around $14 million in 2020 should he get tagged by the Steelers prior to the start of the new league year in March. Should, however, Dupree not receive as much as a transition tag from the Steelers during the early stages of the offseason, he’ll likely cash in even bigger as an unrestricted free agent in March.

At a minimum, Dupree, assuming he remains healthy the remainder of this season, will likely command at least $18 million per season on a long-term free agent contract in March. $20-$23 million per season also might not be out of the question for him. Dupree, by the way, earned $9.232 million this season as part of the Steelers picking up his fifth-year option way ahead of the 2018 regular season getting underway.

If the Steelers want to keep Dupree past this season they’ll first likely need to place either the transition or franchise tag on him prior to the start of the new league year in March. While the 2020 transition tag amount for linebackers is currently projected by Joel Corry of CBS Sports to be $13.826 million, it comes with a huge risk when compared to the franchise tag, which is projected right now to be $15.973 million. For whatever it’s worth, Corry, a former NFL agent, views Dupree as more of candidate to receive the transition tag from the Steelers during the offseason in his latest post and he wrote:

Dupree is rewarding Pittsburgh’s faith in him by keeping his $9.232 million fifth year option intact. He is having a career year. Dupree has 9.5 sacks and 46 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) this season. The Steelers have been one of the biggest proponents of the transition tag, applying it to offensive tackle Max Starks in 2008 and linebacker Jason Worilds in 2014. Dupree is more productive than Worilds was when he was designated as a transition player. Worilds had eight sacks and 50 pressures in 2013. 

While the transition tag route with Dupree sounds like a great bargain for Pittsburgh, it’s a very flimsy one. Should the Steelers indeed wind up transition tagging Dupree the outside linebacker would obviously still be able to entertain offer sheets from other teams. However, should Dupree ultimately sign an offer sheet from another team and the Steelers refused to match it, no compensation would be given to Pittsburgh for their loss. Not only, that, losing Dupree via an unmatched offer sheet while wearing the transition tag would result in the player not counting in the compensatory draft pick formula. In short, trying to save a little more than $2 million by using the transition tag instead of the franchise tag probably wouldn’t be a wise choice by the Steelers.

While the Steelers could certainly decide to go the more secure route by giving Dupree the franchise tag prior to the start of the new league year, affording the equaling salary cap charge mount that comes along with it will be quite challenging for the ream when you consider how tight against the 2020 salary cap they’re expected to be as we sit here in the middle of December. Sure, they could make such a franchise tag amount fit within their salary cap in March if they really want to, but it would take quite a bit of massaging via cuts and restructures to do so.

Also, franchise tagging Dupree comes with no guarantee that they would be able to eventually sign him to a long-term contract as the offseason progresses. Not only that, the Steelers will likely want to try to get a few other contract extensions done during the offseason and heading that list of players might just be fellow outside linebacker T.J. Watt. Because of that, Dupree made it clear on Thursday that he knows he isn’t likely to be the only Steelers player currently under contract with his hand out in the offseason.

“I know a lot of people have to get paid,” Dupree said, per Fittipaldo. “James [Conner] has to get paid. They might have to rip T.J. up pretty soon because if he wins Defensive player of the Year, I don’t think they’ll want him going to the back years of his contract and have to pay him $200 million. You got JuJu [Smith-Schuster]. You got Javon [Hargrave]. There are a lot of guys. There’s a lot of money that’s on the table and a lot of guys that can be paid at this moment.”

If possible, the Steelers would be wise to get Watt locked up long-term during the offseason and if that’s the route they choose to go, one must think he’ll have a shot at becoming the highest paid defensive player in the NFL at around $25 million or slightly more per season. Signing Watt and Dupree to extremely lucrative contract extensions in the same offseason would be a very challenging task. Sure, they could wait on Watt, but his meter will be running in the meantime. The Steelers are also going to likely want to sign defensive tackle Cameron Heyward to another top-end contract extension during the offseason and he’s not going to be cheap.

Sure, the Steelers could attempt to sign Dupree to an extension well before needing to place the franchise tag on him, but odds of that happening seem very, very slim based on the team’s history. However, assuming the Steelers ultimately go the tag route with Dupree, the outside linebacker seemingly made it clear on Thursday that he wouldn’t take issue with such a move and thus wouldn’t be a risk of not signing it like former running back Le’Veon Bell chose to do in 2018.

“Just come to work and hopefully work out something in the meantime,” Dupree said about the possibility of getting tagged by the Steelers. “I feel like that’s something you can work out while you’re here rather than not sign the deal at all.”

Dupree also made it clear on Thursday that while he would like to remain with the Steelers past this season, he knows that it’s not a lock to play out that way.

“Yeah definitely, it would be fun to come back,” Dupree said. “Just being back with Ben and seeing how the defense would play with him, the whole offense together. Just see how special it can be. But I know it’s a business.”

While we all continue to ponder Dupree’s future past this season, we’ll sit and watch and see if he can hit double-digit sacks and beyond to close out the 2019 season. However, every sack he registers from this point forward will increase his market value and while that’s a good thing for him, it would make him that much more expensive for the Steelers to keep him long-term.

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