I hope you’re sitting down for this one, but ESPN is predicting that the Pittsburgh Steelers will, in fact, use the franchise tag on pending unrestricted free agent outside linebacker Bud Dupree. This has been the prevailing assumption throughout the offseason, so certainly nothing surprising, and seemingly the only thing that would prevent it would be if the two sides were to agree to terms on a long-term deal instead.
A franchise tag for Dupree would run about $16.2 million — a seemingly tall ask for a team with less than $6 million in cap space. But Dupree is worth keeping around. A former first-round pick, Dupree had his best season in 2019 with 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. He and T.J. Watt form a fearsome edge-rushing tandem that is a cornerstone of the Steelers’ defense.
Prediction: The Steelers will use the franchise tag on Dupree, even if it means parting with some longtime contributors to free up the cap space. — Brooke Pryor
It’s true that the Steelers are very tight, relatively speaking, up against the salary cap. They will have to make several significant moves, including the releases of some notable players such as Mark Barron and Anthony Chickillo, perhaps even others like Ramon Foster and Vance McDonald, in order to make that happen.
The team has made it work before when they had to fit Le’Veon Bell’s salary cap hits under their salary cap. This year’s $16.2 million tag would be roughly equivalent to the space that they needed, given the salary cap inflation that is inevitable.
As Pryor noted, Dupree is coming off a career year, but most importantly, it was the fact that he and T.J. Watt seemed to work together so well and effectively that is especially important. Given how they were able to perform as a unit, the team should not be in a rush to split up the duo with no viable candidates to replace him.
Still, it won’t be cheap, quite obviously, and it will completely limit most other moves they would be able to make this offseason. One thing that would help is if there is a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place soon, as it would take away the 30 percent rule. The long and short of it would be that they would be able to create more cap space through restructures.
This could also be a year in which they try to get an extension done early for Cameron Heyward with an eye toward lowering his cap hit. He is entering the final year of his contract and already has a big cap hit that they could alleviate with an inevitable extension, even though they usually work on extensions in the summer, the exception being for franchise quarterbacks.
Teams will not be able to use the franchise tag until the 27th, and they will have until March 12 before the window closes.