The East-West Shrine Game and the Reese’s Senior Bowl are over. The 40 times and medical reports have been collected from the NFL Scouting Combine. Now 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 will be attending pro day workouts, hosting NFL Draft prospects at One Buccaneer Place and stacking their draft board.
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.
The Bucs have moved on ineffective running back Doug Martin and won’t re-sign free agent running back Charles Sims, who is too one-dimensional and doesn’t make enough plays. The team believes in Peyton Barber, but needs another running back or two with some explosive running ability.
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 Bucs may part ways with Robert Ayers, who will be 33 next year, due to ineffectiveness and his penchant for getting injured. Licht will also need to get help at defensive tackle where our prediction that the Bucs will be moving on from Chris Baker came true. Baker 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: Washington DT Vita Vea
NEW ANALYSIS: The Bucs are going to go pick a defensive player with the first overall pick as it is highly unlikely that Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson falls to Tampa Bay at No. 7 overall. The question is, will the Bucs improve their defensive line or their secondary with their first overall selection?
If it’s a defensive back, it shouldn’t be Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick. I’m not buying the hype. He’s a safety or a nickel cornerback in the NFL, and if he’s a safety he’s the second-best safety in the draft behind Florida State’s Derwin James. Fitzpatrick not a pure outside cornerback, and if the Bucs want to go in that direction Ohio State’s Denzel Ward would be the ideal pick.
James has a lot of great qualities. He’s a top-notch athlete with good size and speed, and James is an alpha male, who would be a great fit in the Bucs locker room. I wouldn’t rule him out at No. 7.
But Tampa Bay needs help in the trenches and that’s where Vea comes in. The Bucs enter free agency with just two defensive tackles on the roster as the team released the lazy, underachieving Chris Baker, and Clinton McDonald and Sealver Siliga are slated to become unrestricted free agents – although the Bucs would like to have McDonald back at the right price.
The two tackles on the current roster are six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, last year’s seventh-round pick who spent his rookie season on injured reserve. The last three defensive tackles that Licht has acquired have been the 320-pound Baker, the 340-pound Siliga and the 330-pound Tu’ikolovatu he drafted. So drafting the 347-pound Vea aligns with the Bucs’ philosophy at defensive tackle.
You might think that just because Vea and Danny Shelton, Cleveland’s first-round pick at No. 12 overall in 2015, who just got traded to New England, are defensive tackles from the University of Washington that Vea is just a big, space-eating nose tackle. You’d be wrong.
That’s a mistake.
Shelton is just that – a big, space-eating nose tackle. He ran an ultra-slow time of 5.64 in the 40-yard dash at 339 pounds with a 1.9 10-yard split. Vea is an athletic freak, whereas Shelton simply isn’t.
Despite pulling a hamstring on his second attempt, Vea ran an eye-popping 5.10 in the 40-yard dash at 347 pounds with a 1.76 10-yard split. To put that number in perspective, Nathan Shepherd, an athletic, 315-pound defensive tackle from Fort Hays State ran a 5.10, and McCoy ran a 4.99 at 295 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. We’re talking a tenth of second difference between McCoy and Vea despite Vea weighing more than 50 pounds more. Vea also had 41 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, which was second only to Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips’ 42.
Vea has cat-like quickness and agility, and rhino-like strength and size and can help 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.
The Bucs do 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.
Vea does have modest statistics, but the stats don’t tell the full story. 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 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 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, 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.
New defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, a former NFL nose tackle, has coached both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts in Arizona and can take Vea’s game to the next level.
“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.