When looking at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense from 2017, one thing sticks out. No pressure, whatsoever. The Buccaneers, in fact, were the worst team in the NFL when rushing the passer. GM Jason Licht knew this and made it a priority for the 2018 off-season.
2018 Free Agency
I’m really not trying to beat a dead horse here, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2017 pass rush was historically bad. With 2018 free agency and the draft ahead, there were two ways to address the issue. Jason Licht went out and acquired a bevy of Lineman to a help fix the eye sore of the Bucs Defensive Line depth chart. Vinny Curry, Mitch Unrein, Beau Allen and a trade for Jason Pierre Paul was a great start and ultimately where I thought they would end the search. I was apparently wrong.
Licht Throws A Curve Ball
After the free agency wave had passed, it looked like the easy choice for the Bucs at 1.07 would be Florida State Safety Derwin James. If there was one thing the Bucs did almost as bad as their pass rush, it was their pass defense. All the stars aligned so well. Buffalo traded up to the 7th pick in return for a few second round picks and change. Pick after pick went by and James was still on the board. Finally, at the 12th pick overall, Goodell approaches the podium and it was all but certain the name he would read would be Derwin James.
“With the 12th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select……….Vita Vea”.
Mixed emotions would run through my brain like a freight train. Some good. Some great. Mostly, I was wondering “but why?”. We had just acquired a whole new defensive line to add to Gerald McCoy. Why add another defensive tackle when a talent like James fell in the Bucs laps. TWICE! Several breaths later, the rational part of my brain kicked in. While James would have been great, this makes total sense for a team lacking physicality up front. Vita Vea is an absolute unit and his film from Washington backs it up.
A Quick Look At The Husky
Looking at a Defensive Tackle from a statistics stand point, won’t be able to tell the whole story. Three years in washing, Vea had 99 tackles, 15 for loss and 9.5 sacks. He was also 2017’s PAC-12 Defensive player of the year despite the pedestrian stat totals. Vea’s value came from being completely un-blockable and a massive disruption for QB’s. This kids home address was in the opponents offensive backfields. It was exactly what the Buccaneers needed and Licht knew that.
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It’s Not How You Start
Man, did Coach Buckner love to roast the new addition. As to be expected for most rookies, but you still wanted to see more praise than chops busted. Then there was the moment during camp where Buccaneers fans felt their hearts drop to their belts. Vita Vea had suffered a leg injury that was initially feared to be fairly serious, even potentially season ending. Despite a report days later with a positive outlook, weeks would go by without any news with substance. Vea would end up resting through his rookie preseason without any reps. Not ideal for any rookie trying to acclimate to the speed of the NFL.
After a full month of being just a name on the injury report, Vea makes his debut against the Bears in Week four. That was a game to forget for players and fans alike. Vea would see plenty of reps, but did not record a tackle in the blow out. Chicago was making plays downfield and doing it quickly. There really was no opportunity for Vea here but he did show he had recovered from injury. This was step one.
As the season would progress, so would Vea. It would take a few weeks for his stats to grow, but his impact was felt immediately. Teams would need to force the double team. Offensive Lineman had only seconds to contain him. He was becoming a force. In the 13 games started, he notched 21 solo, four TFL and three sacks in a limited role.
Entering a season not knowing for sure what your Defense will look like usually means uncertainty for the current players. With Vea, his versatility will allow his new Coordinator Todd Bowles to build around him. Imagine having a 350lb Behemoth at your disposal who can run a 5.1 forty and push lineman around like they’re on skates.
With a legend like Gerald McCoy to help Maui progress (McCoy’s nickname for the rookie), it’s hard not to be optimistic with Vea. As more reports come out as to the defensive scheme expectations, it will be interesting to watch how the Buccaneers use Vea. Even at his size, he can play anywhere on the line though he’ll likely be primarily interior in a predominantly nickel based scheme.
Should we expect an Aaron Donald like ascension? No. Well maybe. Okay, no. Though the expectation of a stronger, faster and though some would think impossible, a nicer McCoy is not far fetched.