It’s said a draft class can’t be fully graded until at least three years after the picks are made. That’s why after submitting grades for every Pittsburgh Steelers pick made in 2021, I began going back through and grading previous Steeler draft classes beginning with 2018. Today starts the fourth class in that exercise, beginning with the Steelers’ first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft: Bud Dupree, an outside linebacker from Kentucky.
This exercise follows the six viewpoints (listed below) for examining and re-grading a pick. Each of the first five viewpoints gets examined and assigned a letter grade, before taking that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into the draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Steelers’ Career: What did the player contribute to the team that drafted him?
NFL Career: Did the player make the pick look better in hindsight after leaving Pittsburgh?
Pick Value: Did the player outperform his draft slot? Did he fail to live up to the pick used on him?
Positional Value: Was the player the best player remaining at his specific position in the draft?
Other Options: Did any players go during the next round that were better selections?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.
Each factor in a retrospective doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made; consider the grades weighted. For example, to return a high grade in pick value, a first-round pick should have a long and impactful career, while a later-round pick needs only a couple seasons as a back-up or modest contributor to be worth the selection used on him.
Some factors are universal, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to, and steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 1, Pick 22: Bud Dupree, OLB, Kentucky
STEELERS & NFL CAREER: B+
Dupree’s career with the Steelers is a play in two acts. The first, where he was far down the road to earning “bust” status as a failed first-round pick. And then the second, when he had a fifth-year breakout and followed that up with a strong sixth season before hitting the open market as a free agent.
A super-athletic edge rusher who tested off the charts, Pittsburgh drafted Dupree to be what Jarvis Jones failed to become after going in the first two years prior. Dupree started five games as a rookie, and another four in an injury-shortened second season. Over 23 games, he had 8.5 sacks and 50 tackles — production, but not at the level a team wants from a starting edge rusher. He did little to improve the following two years as a full-time starter. His tackle numbers went up, with 40 and 42 those seasons and a combined 20 tackles for a loss. The sack numbers stayed lower, with 11.5 combined over 31 games.
Then 2019 hit, and Dupree showed the production the Steelers expected when drafting him in the first round. Starting all 16 regular season games, Dupree had 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, with 68 tackles, 16 for a loss, and two fumble recoveries. Every one of those numbers was and remains a career high for Dupree. A torn ACL ended Dupree’s final season in Pittsburgh in 2020 after 11 games. Prior to that, he was on a Pro Bowl pace, with eight sacks and two forced fumbles, along with 31 tackles, eight for a loss.
Dupree and T.J. Watt formed one of the best edge rush duos in football in 2019 and 2020. That performance turned Dupree’s career around in Pittsburgh, and made it a positive one to remember when he left as a free agent this offseason, overshadowing how slow it started. He is the longest-tenured player on the Steelers from his draft class, though. After six years he is the final member of the class to leave Pittsburgh, signing as a free agent with the Tennessee Titans this offseason. He earned the second-biggest free agent contract of the offseason, five years and $82.5 million.
PICK VALUE: B+
The “career in two acts” line is apt for this section, as well. For two-thirds of Dupree’s career, he was a bust and unhappy sequel to Jarvis Jones. For the final third, he was the first-round player the team had searched for for years, and a perfect compliment to T.J. Watt. Those final two seasons go a long way to making up for how his career began, and it undeniably is a successful pick for the Steelers. But in terms of value returned, 27 standout games looking like a first-round pick can’t overcome 54 underwhelming ones where he produced like a mid-rounder, and get him back to an A.
POSITIONAL VALUE: A
A lot of edge-rushing linebackers went after Dupree throughout the remaining six rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft. Many have followed similar career arcs to Dupree, and a few bear mentioning in comparison to Bud.
Two share the same name and same team: Za’Darius and Preston Smith, both of the Green Bay Packers. Both, like Dupree, showed flashes of potential but couldn’t sustain it early — ZaDarius (drafted 122nd by Baltimore) had 18.5 sacks in his first four seasons, and Preston (38th, Washington) had 24.5. Signing with Green Bay, they broke out together as one of the better edge rushing combos in the NFL, like Dupree and Watt. Both had over 12 sacks in 2019. While Preston regressed back to four sacks in 2020, Za’Darius had 12.5 in his follow-up to 2019.
Markus Golden (58th, Arizona) has two double-digit sack seasons in his career, but hasn’t produced like that consistently or retained a starting job. The rest of the options in the class (who play an outside linebacker role on the edge, not on the line) have failed to produce such a season. In a re-draft, Dupree and the Smiths are clustered together in the top group, and it would be between Za’Darius and Dupree for the first one selected.
OTHER OPTIONS: B
Some classes, like the one that followed Artie Burns and Sean Davis in the top two rounds in 2016, are just full of future superstars and home run selections. And others, like the one that followed Dupree, are complete duds.
Plenty of players have had productive careers to date, but few have broken into the upper echelon of stars in the league. Closest to that are Byron Jones (27th, Dallas), one of the highest-paid corners in football for Miami, Landon Collins (33rd, N.Y. Giants), one of the highest-paid safeties, now with Washington, and Shaq Thompson (25th, Carolina), one of the highest-paid inside linebackers, still with the Panthers. Not one of the highest-paid at his position, Eric Kendricks (45th, Minnesota) is one of the most productive tacklers in football, with 100-plus tackles in five of his six seasons as a starter, and 107 in only 11 games last season.
Among the other productive players drafted in the next 32 picks were Preston Smith and Benardrick McKinney (43rd, Houston), both also at linebacker. Eddie Goldman (39th, Chicago) is back with the Bears after opting out from his defensive tackle spot due to COVID-19 in 2020. Along the offensive line, Laken Tomlinson (28th, Detroit) is on his seventh season as an every-down starter at guard, Mitch Morse (49th, Kansas City) is on his same but at center, and D.J. Humphries (24th, Arizona) is fighting for his third straight full season at tackle after injuries limited his first three years.
It’s a crowded group of similarly-talented players that went between picks 22-54, although some stand out from the rest as clearly better options. One of those is Dupree, though in a re-draft, he might get eclipsed by a few of those names above, specifically in the first large paragraph.
OVERALL GRADE: B+
Recency bias may result in some questions for why this isn’t an A in some form. Dupree’s most recent two years definitely earn that grade, and a similar year of production in 2021 will get it there. Without his groin injury in 2016, Dupree may have put together what was looking like a potential breakout season. Even if it took some seasons, Dupree has earned Pittsburgh its value back on that first-round selection, and is a good pick who would still go early in a re-draft.
Now playing like a first-round pick and getting paid like one of the game’s best at the position, Dupree has a major chance to prove what kind of player he is. In Pittsburgh, Dupree played in the shadow of T.J. Watt during his most productive seasons, and left room for the argument that his numbers came more as a result of Watt’s impact on the game. His new partner with the Titans, Harold Landry III, is no Watt. Dupree is expected to be the absolute top rusher for Tennessee, and he can show whether or not he can produce in that role.