The Steelers opted not to franchise tag Bud Dupree on Tuesday, making him a free agent.
The move from Pittsburgh’s perspective was relatively expected. The Steelers are still struggling to get under the salary cap, despite Ben Roethlisberger’s best efforts with his new contract. Big Ben’s deal got the Steelers within striking distance of getting under the cap.
Still, the Steelers offseason is far from over. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bud Dupree remain major question marks moving forward. Smith-Schuster is as good as gone, assuming he prefers to be paid as a No. 1 wideout. The Steelers believe they’ve established the simple fact he isn’t that, despite a 1,400-yard season playing alongside Antonio Brown a few years ago.
Dupree, meanwhile, was well on his way to a long-term free agent payday, putting up eight sacks through 11 games before a season-ending ACL injury. Now, it’s unknown whether he’ll make his full worth or be forced to take a short-term prove it deal. Regardless, it might not be in Pittsburgh.
If the Steelers don’t bring back Bud Dupree, who will replace him?
Alex Highsmith was a third-round pick in last year’s NFL Draft, and let’s not pretend that wasn’t a calculated addition by Kevin Colbert. Outside linebacker is among the most important positions in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. Highsmith, a former walk-on at Charlotte, wasn’t simply selected for depth reasons.
Highsmith showed out in several games replacing Dupree on the starting defense. He’s no Dupree yet, but he did develop some pass-rushing camaraderie with T.J. Watt. In five games as a starter, Highsmith put up two sacks and an interception. The Steelers believe that’s only a preview of what’s to come, and he’s still on his rookie contract.
The Steelers have made due with replacing Pro Bowl talent at the right time. Highsmith becoming the heir apparent to Dupree makes a lot of sense, especially given Dupree’s recent injury issues.
For Pittsburgh, it appears they’re willing to cash that bet now.