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Is a Steelers reunion with Bud Dupree in the cards?

Dupree returning as a #3 OLB would be cool, but is it realistic?

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Any Steeler fan that remembers the 2019 and 2020 Steelers defenses is probably excited at the prospect of Bud Dupree returning. Dupree was a phenomenal run defender, his physicality and elite athleticism were a great compliment to T.J. Watt as well.

Dupree also had the benefit of being a guy who would do anything the team needed him to do. He blew up pulling lineman, contained quarterbacks in the pocket, he dropped into coverage and when the time came for him to make a play, he had finally become the guy that could finish a sack.

Dupree left the Steelers for a big contract (5 years, $82 million) with the Tennessee Titans, and is expected to be cut two years into the deal. If he is cut, rumors are the Steelers want him back. But should they? And will he want to return? As I see it we have three questions to answer before judging if a reunion makes sense.

Is Dupree going to be willing to take a backup role?
Is Bud Dupree worth signing?
If he did sign, would he even play much?

By the Numbers, Dupree’s impact

Dupree is coming off of two seasons where he never was fully healthy. He returned to the field before fully recovering from his 2020 ACL tear, and he has talked about how compensating for that injury still healing not only limited him but led to other injuries. It’s not hard to see the impact of his injuries, just look at his stats for 2019-2020 compared to 2021-2022.

2019-2020 w/ Steelers
27 games played, 19.5 sacks, 32 QB hits, 24 TFL, 99 total tackles, 6 fumbles forced, 5 passes defended.

2021-2022 w/ Titans

22 games played, 7 sacks, 17 QB hits, 8 TFL, 35 tackles, 2 fumbles forced, 1 pass defended.

He played in 81.5% as many games but recorded roughly one third the statistical impact.

Those numbers are one of the only reasons the discussion of Bud Dupree returning to the Steelers. If he had lived up to his big deal, he would be starting for the Titans in 2023, instead of likely being cut. Looking at where his statistics stand league-wide, Dupree is outside the top 100 in sacks, tackles for a loss and QB hits.

There’s no reason for any team to look at Dupree’s last two seasons and think that he is going to be an impact starter. He shouldn’t be a priority free agent for any team, and he won’t be getting another high-end contract. But looking at those stats it’s also worth asking if Bud Dupree is actually worth bringing back. Malik Reed had better stats from 2020-2021 before the Steelers brought him in than Dupree had in 2021 and 2022.

Is Dupree likely to settle for a lesser role and less money? He most likely will have to.

What does Bud Dupree offer on the field?

Let’s look at some tape from 2022.

Bud Dupree is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

You’ll remember these pass rush arcs from Bud Dupree. Dupree early in his career couldn’t flatten the arc and would get driven past the quarterback, but he would also make plays by simply hustling enough to get back into the play from behind.

He was back to doing that in Tennessee. I don’t think because he forgot how he improved, but he doesn’t have the same power in his legs or the same ridiculous acceleration off the line Dupree used to have.

Bud Dupree is the edge rusher to the left side of the screen.

Dupree gets the tight end’s hands off him just as well as he used to, and he finishes with a good hard hit like he used to. But look at his steps approaching the runner, he’s not smooth or powerful there, and he looks like he is compensating for injuries.

Bud Dupree is the edge rusher to the right side of the screen.

Here the blocker does a bit better with his hands, and you can see it takes a bit for Dupree to drive through the block. He still has the same hustle and fight in him, but his legs aren’t quite as explosive as they used to be when he regularly destroyed tight ends trying to block him.

Bud Dupree is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

I loved seeing this play. I used to joke about teams trying to block T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree with pullers in 2019 and 2020. It never worked, but they’d still try almost every game. Here the pulling lineman gets contact with Dupree but that isn’t enough to block him.

Compare those clips of some of Dupree’s best plays in 2022 to these clips from 2020:

Bud Dupree is the edge rusher to the bottom of the screen.

Bud Dupree is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

Top of the screen again

And again, top of screen.

Notice the difference in both power and quickness you see between 2020 Bud Dupree and 2022 Bud Dupree. That’s what his awful ACL injury in 2020 and the subsequent injuries have cost him.

It’s unclear if he can, at 30 years old, get back more of his explosiveness. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any value. He’s still quick and strong even if he isn’t elite in those areas anymore. You still can’t just block him with a puller or leave him unblocked, he’s just not as freakish in his physical ability as he was.

I will add that a position as the #3 edge rusher in Pittsburgh is a great place for him if he needs to take it easy in the offseason and start slow in 2023. The Steelers wouldn’t be pushing him to be ready for Week 1, they’d need him to be as close to full strength as he can get for later in the season. He could take an easier workload and ramp up over the season.

I think a reunion with the Steelers makes sense for both the team and Dupree. Dupree would be an immediate upgrade on any of the edge rushers the Steelers have brought in since he left, and he’d be in a place that would give him a better chance to work back to being more like the 2020 version of himself.

Are there enough snaps to go around?

The last question is why would Dupree want to come back to the Steelers and be a #3 guy, are there even enough snaps to warrant him coming back when most of the snaps will be taken by T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith? This is a good question and it carries even more weight after the Melvin Gordon situation of 2021. If Dupree did come back, would he be happy with not getting many snaps?

The first problem with this question is the Melvin Gordon situation, where he supposedly left the Steelers unhappy with his play time, and was happy with the Chiefs. But while that was the reason given in public, it never made sense. Melvin Gordon left the Steelers after he missed a game due to injury, and before that game? Gordon actually led the Steelers edge rushers in snaps played. He was getting snaps, and in Kansas City he would play fewer snaps than he did in Pittsburgh (both lower total snaps and percentage of total snaps played). I don’t know what else was going on, but the stated reason for his unhappiness doesn’t hold up.

And when you look at the OLB snaps for the Steelers year-by-year, you can see there are a ton of snaps available for the #3 OLB. Let’s look at the last three years for the Steelers and see how many snaps are available for backup outside linebackers versus the starters.

The last three seasons the Steelers have played a combined 3,264 defensive snaps. There is space for two edge rushers on every play, no matter the personnel package. That means there were 6518 snaps available for outside linebackers. T.J. Watt over those three seasons played 2,115 snaps, when you add Bud Dupree’s 2020, and Alex Highsmith’s 2021 and 2022 seasons, the #2 edge rusher has played 2400 snaps. That leaves 2003 snaps, or 30.7% of the edge rusher snaps available for other players. And that number is actually low, because when the Steelers did have at least one backup they trusted to play the starters played less and the Steelers also played three outside linebackers on a decent number of snaps, putting one of them inside, usually attacking the “A” gap.

There are plenty of snaps available for Bud Dupree, should his recovery and play dictate he is ready to play starter-level snaps in 2023, and even if everyone stays relatively healthy.

The questions we can’t answer. . .

When we look at the situation, it makes sense, at least on the surface, for both Bud Dupree and the Pittsburgh Steelers to make a deal and bring Bud Dupree back to the Black and Gold. But that doesn’t mean it will happen, just that it makes sense.

We don’t know how other teams will view Bud Dupree, and what some other team might offer him. We know the Steelers don’t have unlimited cap space to throw at their #3 outside linebacker, and I’ve learned long ago not to overestimate the intelligence of other NFL owners. If someone threw 20 million guaranteed dollars at Bud Dupree gambling that he’d bounce back to his 2019 form and be an impact starter for them, would he turn that down? He’s 30 years old, if someone offers him bigger money like that, it would be his last chance to cash in. I can’t see him passing something like that up.

But if no one throws big money at him, I think a reunion between the Steelers and Dupree makes a lot of sense for both sides.