The East-West Shrine Game and the Reese’s Senior Bowl are over. Now it’s on to the NFL Scouting Combine for Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht, director of player personnel John Spytek, director of college scouting Mike Biehl, head coach Dirk Koetter and the team’s scouts and assistant coaches. The Bucs have spent the fall and winter scouting prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft where Tampa Bay has the 7th overall pick due to a 5-11 finish to the regular season. The focus needs to be on bolstering the Bucs’ defense, especially along the defensive line and in the secondary, in addition to improving Koetter’s running game on offense.
It’s time for the team to move on from oft-injured and ineffective running back Doug Martin, who will be released this offseason, and free agent running back Charles Sims is too one-dimensional and doesn’t make enough plays to be re-signed. We’ll find out if the team agrees.
The offensive line is a concern for many Bucs fans, but offensive tackles Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson are in the top half of the league at their respective positions, and Dotson had one of his best seasons before getting injured in late November. The real issue is in the interior where the guard play was sub-par. That could mean moving Ali Marpet from center back to guard.
The return of J.R. Sweezy from a back injury was supposed to help Tampa Bay’s struggling ground game and prompted the move of Marpet from right guard to center. Marpet was a better guard in 2016 than he was center in 2017, but it is unclear if the plan is to keep him snapping the ball to Jameis Winston or return to right guard, but guard is a top need due to the fact that neither Kevin Pamphile nor Evan Smith played well at left guard despite both being in a contract season. The Bucs’ running game won’t take off until the interior offensive line is settled and is given an upgrade in talent.
Tampa Bay’s defense definitely needs help at defensive end as the team finished dead last in sacks with 22. Noah Spence is coming off his second shoulder surgery in 12 months and can’t be counted on to make the kind of necessary impact the team needs to effectively rush the passer. If he gets five to eight sacks upon his return that should be seen as a bonus. Licht needs address defensive end in both free agency and the draft, as the team is expected to part ways with Robert Ayers, who will be 33 next year, due to ineffectiveness. Licht will also need to get help at defensive tackle where the Bucs will be moving on from Chris Baker, who had half a sack despite getting paid $6 million as a free agent signing last year and failing to beat out Clinton McDonald, who will be a free agent in March.
The Bucs will also need to address cornerback and will try to re-sign Brent Grimes, who turns 35 this year. Tampa Bay had the league’s worst pass defense in 2017 as neither second-year cornerback Ryan Smith nor Vernon Hargreaves III, who was the team’s first-round pick in 2016, played well. Tampa Bay could also use a safety to develop next to Justin Evans, last year’s second-round pick.
PewterReport.com offers up its first edition of the Bucs’ round-by-round draft projection in 2018, focusing mostly on adding players for Tampa Bay’s defense and players to bolster the team’s running game. PewterReport.com’s 2018 Bucs 7-Round Mock Draft is sponsored by Holliday Karatinos Law Firm – the official personal injury attorney for PewterReport.com. Call attorney Jim Holliday for a free consultation at (813) 868-1887 or visit them on the web at HelpingInjuredPeople.com
Previous pick: Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson
Nelson was the Bucs’ top pick in PewterReport.com’s initial 2018 Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft, and for good reason. He’s a 10-year NFL starter and a Pro Bowl player waiting to happen, and Tampa Bay dramatically needs to upgrade its play at the guard position in 2018 to aid its woeful running game and up its point production.
Yet after four years of spending most of the Bucs’ draft picks on the offensive side of the ball, general manager Jason Licht knows he needs to use this draft to select defense, defense and even more defense – if the team is going to have a shot at rebounding in 2018 and making the playoffs. The biggest need is along the defensive line where there will be plenty of change occurring this offseason with the expected departure of defensive tackle Chris Baker, a free agent bust, and potentially 32-year old defensive end Robert Ayers, who struggled to stay healthy and produce in his first two years in Tampa Bay.
While there will be a temptation to select UTSA (University of Texas-San Antonio) defensive end Marcus Davenport with the seventh overall pick to address an area of glaring need, he’s simply not one of the top 10 players in this draft. Licht knows that this is not a great class for edge rushers, but he does the right thing by selecting Vea to make an immediate impact on Tampa Bay’s defensive line with the seventh overall pick. Davenport would take a year or two to develop as a defensive end, and Licht and the Tampa Bay coaching staff literally have one year to turn the Bucs into winners and show the Glazers that they are the right men for the job of the 2019 season going forward.
So the pick is Vea, a massive, 6-foot-4, 340-pound defensive tackle with cat-like quickness and agility and rhino-like strength and size. Vea helps the Bucs defense in several ways. The first is as a run-stuffer. Washington had the fourth-ranked run defense in the FBS last year and Vea was a big reason why.
Yes, the Bucs need to upgrade their pass rush this year and boost their sack totals from a dismal 22 last year, but having more pass-rushing opportunities due to stopping the run on the first two downs and setting up third-and-long situations helps, too. Vea played nose tackle, defensive tackle and defensive end in Washington’s 3-4 defense and the Huskies often rushed three and dropped eight defenders into coverage due to Vea’s presence and ability to collapse the pocket and still managed to rank 17th in the FBS with 38 sacks in 13 games.
At first glance, Vea’s career stats are not much to get excited about. In three years with the Huskies he totaled 99 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, five passes defensed and two forced fumbles. But he is a one-man wrecking crew upfront and the disruption he causes by collapsing the pocket resulted in an awful lot of clean-up sacks for Washington’s other defensive linemen and linebackers.
“I’ve coached in the National Football League, and I’ve never seen a guy of his size play with that explosiveness,” said Huskies co-defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake, who used to be a defensive backs coach in Tampa Bay under Jon Gruden and Raheem Morris. “He’s pretty special.”
Vea draws comparisons to both former Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton and former Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata – both of whom were drafted 12th overall in 2015 and 2006, respectively. The 6-foot-2, 335-pound Shelton and the 6-foot-4, 345-pound Ngata are both similar-sized to Vea, but lack Vea’s speed and quickness.
“Shelton was a top 12 pick selected a couple years ago by the Cleveland Browns and that’s about where I expect Vita Vea to go as well,” said NFL Draft analyst Rob Rang on KOMO’s Thursday Night Dawg House show. “He’s one of the freaks of the 2018 NFL Draft, and I use the term ‘freak’ in as kind of a way as possible.
“You’re talking about a man who is 344 pounds, so there will be some plays where he might need to rest and get a second breath. You’re really picking at nits. We’re talking about a player who is physically dominating and in my opinion, still just scratching the surface of his technique.”
Vea’s Washington Career Defensive Stats
2017: 43 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 4 PBUs, 1 punt block
2016: 39 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF
2015: 17 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 FF, 1 FG block
Vea’s presence would not only increase the production of Tampa Bay’s defensive ends, he would also occupy a double team on most plays, which would allow Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to get freed up for even more one-on-one pass rush situations. Because of his movement ability, Vea could also be moved around the line to play three-technique defensive tackle or even defensive end in some situations if the Bucs wanted to go with a big defensive line that consisted of Vea, McCoy, 340-pound defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and 295-pound defensive end Will Gholston.
Vea’s experience playing nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme also gives defensive coordinator Mike Smith the ability to switch Tampa Bay to a 3-4 defense in 2018, or at least play more multiple fronts consisting of both 3-4 and 3-3-5 schemes in addition to a 4-3 front. For those Bucs fans that want the team to embrace the trend of the 3-4 defense, having a chess piece like Vea is key to making that happen due to the importance of the zero-technique nose tackle in that scheme.
While Vea has NFL-caliber size and a rare combination of size and speed – he’s been timed as fast as 4.8 in the 40-yard dash – his technique still needs plenty of refinement. Bucs defensive line coach Jay Hayes helped develop 6-foot-3, 325-pound nose tackle Peko Domata in Cincinnati where he had an 11-year career before moving on to Denver in 2017.
“Anyone can go out there and play balls to the wall and do well, but it comes to a point in time where that only takes you so far,” Vea said. “That was me [in 2016], and this offseason I really grabbed a hold of actually learning the game … instead of going out there and just bull-rushing every single play.”
There is much more to Vea’s game than just bull rushing, but the Bucs could certainly use his freakish bull rush up front to wreck havoc against the run and collapse the pocket against the pass.