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SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL.
FAB 1. Inside The Bucs’ Drafting Of Vea
Tampa Bay’s selection of defensive tackle Vita Vea with its first-round pick didn’t happen on the night of April 26. It happened a couple of years ago.
Knowing that the Bucs needed a speedy weapon at wide receiver capable of making plays for Dirk Koetter’s offense and a stud cornerback to pair with Brent Grimes for Mike Smith’s defense, general manager Jason Licht headed out to the University of Washington during the 2016 college football season to scout wide receiver John Ross and cornerback Sidney Jones among other talented Huskies – including Vea, who was a sophomore defensive lineman.
“You see a 350-pound guy that is sometimes playing in an outside linebacker role coming off the edge, and you knew how athletic he was,” Licht said. “We marveled at him. Our scouts, Tony Kinkela and Andy Speyer, but particularly Tony, who lived up in that area, would talk about him a lot. I remember that year I went out there with Tony and Andy at a school call and I came back and talked to Dirk [Koetter].
“I said, ‘Wait until this big guy comes out of Washington.’ He talks to Coach Pete (Huskies coach Chris Peterson) quite a bit and he came back to my office and said that he said nothing but great things about him. We’ve been on Vea for a while.”
When Licht walked into the meeting room for an exclusive interview the PewterReport.com staff he offered up some insight into one of the best drafts he has been a part of – and what could go down as a franchise-changing draft for the Bucs in terms of getting this team over the hump and into the playoffs.
Licht didn’t reveal his draft board to me, but reading between the lines based on our conversation I would guess it went like this:
1. North Carolina State DE Bradley Chubb
2. Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson
3. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley
4. Washington DT Vita Vea
5. Florida State SS Derwin James
That’s important to know because the Bucs were prepared to take Vea, who I believe was their fourth-rated player on their board with the seventh overall pick, which would have been really good value. When Cleveland surprised many by passing over Chubb and taking Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward – a move that didn’t catch the Bucs off guard due to intel they had gleaned the day before the draft – Tampa Bay’s front office knew two things.
First, there was a chance that a member of the Top 3 on their board – likely Nelson – could fall to them at No. 7 where he would have been the Bucs’ selection. And second, it all but assured Tampa Bay would at least have its choice of either Vea or James at No. 7 if Chubb and Nelson went to Denver and Indianapolis, respectively, which is what happened.
Days before the draft, the Bucs had prepared to stay at No. 7 and pick the 6-foot-4, 347-pound Vea, believing that he – and James, too – had Pro Bowl-caliber talent. But one of the scenarios that Licht and his scouts had mock drafted was a trade down to No. 12 with Buffalo, who desperately wanted to draft a quarterback, and did with Wyoming’s Josh Allen at No. 7.
What prompted the Bucs’ decision to move down was the work done by director of player personnel John Spytek, director of college scouting Mike Biehl, director of pro scouting Rob McCartney and the team’s scouting staff. A lot of intel gathering had to be done in order to move down to No. 12 and ensure that Tampa Bay would at get Vea or James.
“That was a lot of fun,” Licht said. “I knew that there was a chance that Vea was going to go Miami. I had some intel that Washington wasn’t going to trade up to get him, though. I wasn’t worried because once Arizona made the trade up – and we had feeling that’s what they were going to do – that would push both Vea and Derwin James into that next spot. We knew we were going to get one or the other. To me that was worth picking up the two second-round picks and risking it – even though we wanted Vea.
“Once Minkah went [to Miami] we got our guy. It just happened to work out that way. I thought about trading back up [ahead of Miami] from 12 to go get him, but I resisted. I was going to want that fourth-round pick. I didn’t want to have to give up a No. 2 and get back a four.”
The Bucs traded the No. 7 overall pick and a seventh-rounder to Buffalo for the No. 12 overall pick and two second-rounders (No. 53 and No. 56 overall) to give Tampa Bay three second-round picks. Licht traded down again with New England in the second to pick up an extra fourth-round pick, and would use one of those two fourth-rounders – along with one of the team’s two sixth-round picks – to move up into the third round to draft offensive lineman Alex Cappa.
Licht told me that this is the best scouting staff he’s ever worked with. It took a couple of years to get the right scouts in place, but he marveled at the job his team did in helping him turn seven initial draft picks – with only three in the top 100 – into eight selections through three trades, which netted the Bucs a total of five picks inside the top 100 when all was said and done.
“I thought this was the smoothest draft that I have ever been a part of in terms of our preparation for every scenario – one of them coming to fruition with the trade back from No. 7 to 12,” Licht said. “We were ready for it and it didn’t surprise us. That was one we were ready for.”
So how did Licht know that Miami would pass on Vea in favor of Fitzpatrick? Scouting intel.
“That’s where Rob McCartney is an encyclopedia,” Licht said. “He’s extremely sharp and intelligent. I can just turn to him – we have a room with a big board for every team, who’s next and what their team needs are – and ask him anything about teams. As the picks came in we were right and were just crossing them off just in succession based on what he and Shane Scanell and Alex Smith had done with Jon Spytek overseeing it.
“I could just turn to him and say, ‘Hey, what is San Diego going to do?’ And he would say, ‘They’re going to take one of these three guys,’ and boom – they did.”
McCartney, Scannell and Smith are the Bucs’ pro scouts, but that’s where they come into play during the NFL Draft. Their knowledge of all 31 other NFL teams’ rosters and draft needs is quite valuable when Licht is looking to do some draft day maneuvering.
Everyone in the Bucs’ front office had a role to play during the draft and the selection of Vea – even director of football administration Mike Greenberg, who serves as Licht’s right-hand man and the team’s salary cap wizard. Typically, Greenberg comes into play during undrafted free agency immediately following the draft, but that changed this year.
“Mike lets me know what we’re going to have for undrafted free agency because every team has a cap number to use on your undrafted free agents and rookies,” Licht said. “He’ll say, ‘Do you really want this guy?’ He tells me what the options are to go get him and still stay under the rookie pool, which is by guaranteeing paragraph five (the base salary in NFL player contracts). A significant amount of their paragraph – let’s say you can guarantee a guy a $20,000 bonus and guarantee $80,000 of his salary. If he gets cut and makes your practice squad he’s going to make that anyway. If he goes and makes somebody else’s practice squad it’s offset.
“There are – I don’t want to say loopholes … ways of still getting the guys we want. Greenberg has a great way of reading my mind. He’ll look at me and he’ll say, ‘You want this guy over that guy, right?’ He’s just invaluable on a number of fronts.”
But Greenberg, who has one of the brightest front office minds in the league, actually played his role in the selection of Vea before the draft.
“We ended up getting a seventh-round compensatory pick from last year – no big deal,” Licht said. “I like having a pick. It’s fun drafting a player. Last year around this time we were signing a player. We were about to sign him and Greenberg came into my office and said, ‘Hey, if you wait two days to sign him he won’t count against the compensatory formula as a free agent. There’s a certain point where they are UFAs up to a certain date, and then you hit another date and they are no longer considered UFAs. They are just street free agents [and don’t count against the compensatory formula].
“That particular free agent wasn’t necessarily guaranteed to make the team, so I didn’t think much of it, but Greenberg suggested that we send him home and bring him back on Monday to sign the contract. He ended up making our team, and if we had signed him two days earlier we wouldn’t have gotten the seventh-round pick. Without the seventh, we might not have gotten the deal done with Buffalo. I probably would have gotten the deal done somehow, but as it turned out, Buffalo wanted the seventh involved in our trade. After I did the deal I looked at Greenberg immediately and said, ‘You got us those two second-round picks! That’s where you’re earning your paycheck!’”
Vea’s selection by Licht was years in the making. Tampa Bay’s G.M. had made some improvements to the defensive line over the last two years – adding defensive ends Robert Ayers, Jr. and Noah Spence in 2016 and defensive tackles Chris Baker and Stevie Tu’ikolovatu – but it wasn’t enough.
Even during the Bucs’ playoff chase in 2016 when the team had the No. 1 ranked third down defense, Licht saw that the defensive line wasn’t stout enough against the run. So he added two bigger bodies in the 320-pound Baker and the 330-pound Tu’ikolovatu, but Baker wound up being a bust and Tu’ikolovatu spent his rookie season on injured reserve.
Watching the Bucs defensive line last year was a weekly travesty, perhaps scarring Licht. The unit couldn’t rush the passer all season nor could it stop the run consistently, and Licht was left to curse to himself regularly watching helplessly from his suite. He knew he hadn’t done enough to improve the defensive line, but that was going to change.
Last year’s tortuous 5-11 season prompted Licht to cut Baker and Ayers, and sign run stuffers in tackles Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein along with defensive end Vinny Curry, in addition to trading for pass-rushing defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. But he wasn’t done there. For added depth and to ensure longevity at the defensive tackle position Licht coveted the massive Vea, whom he had first scouted two years ago.
“Last year, watching the games from the booth one of the things that I wasn’t really happy with from the first snap of the play when we were on defense was not being able to control the line of scrimmage,” Licht said. “Actually, I was pissed. You could see that on both sides of the ball. The one thought that never left my mind was that we have to beat [other teams] up. We have to dominate. We have to impose our will. I didn’t see that enough.
“It wasn’t a coaching thing and I’m not blaming any players in particular. I blame myself. I thought to myself, ‘It’s time. It’s time to bring the guys in that will do that.’ It’s an attitude thing and it’s also a talent thing. We had Vita graded higher than Derwin in terms of being a football player, and we liked Derwin a lot. It might have been just slightly ahead, but once we set that board, I’m going to stay true to that board. So he was the guy. Now would we have been happy with Derwin? Hell yeah we would, but we were happy to do what we did, grab the extra picks that helped us fill other needs, and still get the guy we ranked higher.”
Last year’s performance by the defensive line shell-shocked Licht to a degree. He didn’t just want to add a couple of players as he did over the last two years in an attempt to upgrade it. Licht wanted to totally remake the line and change the attitude.
Licht wanted toughness and vigor.
He wanted high-effort relentlessness.
He wanted physical, dominating players.
He wanted ass-kickers.
Licht wanted Vea, and got him two years later – and five picks later at No. 12 than he originally thought he would at No. 7, picking up quite a haul of draft picks in the process.