It’s taken longer than expected, but Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree is finally living up to his first round pick status. The former Kentucky standout was extremely raw coming out of college. The Steelers knew that he would take some time to develop into a top tier pass rusher. Now in his fifth and final year under contract, the Steelers edge rusher is having a terrific season. Kevin Colbert picked up Dupree’s fifth year option this off-season, making him a free agent come 2020. The team faces a difficult decision of either paying top dollar on a new contract, or looking elsewhere to fill the outside linebacker position.

Finding an elite edge rusher in the draft is a difficult task on its own. Compound that with the fact the Steelers do not have a first round pick, and it becomes that much more problematic. Even if Colbert were to hit on an edge rusher in the draft, it’s almost certain it would take a year or two for that player to become established. That would not mesh well with the championship window this team has with Ben Roethlisberger. A 2020 draft pick probably wouldn’t blossom until after the team’s franchise quarterback has retired.

The other possibility is to use free agency as an option. The going rate for an elite pass rusher on the open market will be north of $25 million going into next off-season. That number is a real problem for Pittsburgh given the fact they currently have around 3 million in cap space projected for next season. The team could probably maneuver enough cap space to sign a $12-$15 million dollar player at that position, possibly more if the deal is backloaded. At that price, they can expect a mid-tier player or a older veteran on a one year deal. None of those are likely to match the production that Bud Dupree is now providing. The Steelers would seem better off resigning Dupree at that point, rather than settling for someone else.

So what would it realistically take to resign Bud Dupree? A lot of that depends on how the rest of his season goes. Right now, Dupree sits at four sacks on the season. Basically he is on pace for an eight sack season, a career high but not an overly impressive number. If he were to reach that magical double-digit sack total, that would change things dramatically however. Dupree would be hitting free agency at only 27, coming off a ten plus sack season, and with the pedigree of being a former first round pick. In that scenario, you can’t rule out a team throwing out a $20 million per year contract.

Got sticker shock yet? Assuming he doesn’t have a bust out second half, let’s take a look at what some similar players got in free agency. A very good comp to look at is the contract signed by Za’Darius Smith this past off-season. The Packers inked him to a four year, $66 million dollar contract, an average of $16.5 per season. Smith is also 27, and never had more than eight and a half sacks in his four years with the Baltimore Ravens. Using this contract as a guide, the Steelers are looking at roughly $18 million per season to get a deal done.

At first glance, that kind of money for Bud Dupree sounds outrageous. Keep in mind however you are buying what should be his prime years of football. To go along with his improved pass-rushing, Dupree has also become an excellent run stopper. He currently has more total tackles than his edge rushing partner TJ Watt. Essentially he has become the perfect fit for what Keith Butler is looking for in an outside linebacker. A player who can rush the passer, while being able to set the edge against the run. All this, and be athletic enough to play in space as a pass defender. The Steelers have found a player who checks all those boxes, it won’t be easy replacing someone with this skill set.

Pittsburgh had a chance to possibly get a deal done at a discount before they picked up Dupree’s fifth year option. Now they are resigned to paying top dollar for Bud Dupree, or face the possibility of the defense regressing back to the liability it once was. It won’t be an easy decision, but the Steelers would be making a mistake by not signing Bud Dupree to a new deal.