FAB 3. Vea’s NFL Journey Begins
When Tampa Bay defensive tackle Vita Vea took the field on Sunday in Chicago it was the first time he had put pads on and played in a game since January 1 when his Washington Huskies battled the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Fiesta Bowl.
Most of Vea’s Bucs teammates had played in six contests – three preseason games and three regular season games – this season before Vea played his first NFL down. And all of Vea’s teammates had the benefit of going through training camp, whereas a calf injury he suffered on the first day of padded practice on July 29 sidelined him for six weeks.
Vea’s NFL debut wasn’t noteworthy at all on the stats sheet. He didn’t record a single tackle in his 33 snaps while the Bears pounded the Bucs, 48-10. By comparison, six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recorded just two tackles in his 48 snaps. No one on defense played well except for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who had a team-high seven tackles and logged the Bucs’ lone sack on the day.
For Vea, Sunday was essentially his first preseason game – only this loss counted. He was just excited to have the calf injury behind him and to start logging some meaningful game experience.
“It felt good to be back out there,” Vea said. “Obviously I have some work to do and correct the mistakes that I had and just get better. I felt good out there, I just wish the outcome had been a little better.”
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter was encouraged by what he saw from Vea in his first NFL game.
“Vita Vea was probably what you would expect from a guy that hasn’t played live football since January 1,” Koetter said. “Plenty of us are not fans of preseason football, but Vita Vea missed all of preseason football. I think his power was on display at times, but I also think that these are real grown men NFL linemen that are blocking him.”
Vea’s power flashed in Chicago, much to the chagrin of Bears center Cody Whitehair, who got rag-dolled a few times on Sunday, as these clips show.
The unfortunate thing for Vea and the Bucs is that Vea went to Washington rather than Florida State, plays defensive tackle rather than strong safety, and is not named Derwin James.
Yes, the Bucs passed James, a player they also liked, in the first round to take Vea, and Tampa Bay just happens to have a glaring need at strong safety right now with injuries to Chris Conte and Jordan Whitehead, whom the team took in the fourth round. But there are also injuries at defensive tackle where Mitch Unrein is on injured reserve and Beau Allen has been sidelined for the last two and a half games due to a foot injury. Vea’s return to action certainly helps the Bucs’ depth inside at defensive tackle.
It doesn’t help that James’ rookie season is off to a hot start with 26 tackles, three sacks and an interception. Vea will be lucky to get three sacks all year. That’s usually how it goes for most rookie defensive tackles not named Aaron Donald. NFL defensive tackles typically take a couple of years to develop before becoming dominant. Donald had nine sacks as a rookie and a career-high 11 in his second year.
New Orleans defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, a player the Bucs were seriously considering taking with their first-round pick in 2016, has seven sacks in his first 29 games with four coming as a rookie and then posting only two last year.
Cincinnati’s Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins had three sacks as a rookie. In Tampa Bay, McCoy had three sacks as a rookie and then one the next year in just six games during an injury-shortened season. Even the legendary Warren Sapp had just three sacks during his rookie campaign.
Now let me make one thing clear. Vea is a much different defensive tackle than a Hall of Famer like Sapp was. He’s not going to challenge any of Sapp’s sack records. The Bucs would be lucky if Vea is as good as McCoy, who was the third overall pick in the 2010 draft.
The 335-pound Vea is a power player similar to Chicago’s Akiem Hicks, who is 6-foot-5, 332 pounds. Hicks, who had a sack on Sunday in the first half, had just 10.5 sacks in his first 61 games over five years in the league with New Orleans and New England before recording 18.5 sacks in his last 36 games with Chicago.
It takes time for defensive tackles to develop. Sapp didn’t make the Pro Bowl until his third season in the NFL in 1997. McCoy, who didn’t make his first Pro Bowl until his third year, had nine sacks in his first 35 games over three seasons before posting 9.5 in 2013, which was his fourth year in the league.
The Vea selection was a move for the future. It was made because McCoy just turned 30 and he might have anywhere from one to three more seasons left in Tampa Bay. Instead of being forced to draft a rookie defensive tackle when McCoy leaves – regardless of what may or may not be available talent-wise in the draft that year – Bucs general manager Jason Licht had the foresight to start that process now with Vea, who can come in and learn from a Pro Bowler like McCoy and not have the spotlight squarely on him from the get-go.
We’ll see if Vea can develop into a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle over the next three years. He needs to, especially if James continues to play lights-out football for San Diego.
Drafting Vea over James reminds me of when Tampa Bay passed on running back Kareem Hunt in favor of wide receiver Chris Godwin in the third round last year. Hunt, who was selected two spots behind Godwin in the third round in 2017, led the league in rushing last year as rookie Pro Bowler and proved to be the more impactful player in his first NFL season. But that doesn’t mean that Godwin won’t develop into a star player, too.
Godwin was drafted to eventually replace DeSean Jackson in the starting lineup, perhaps as early as next year, and has the potential to be a 1,000-yard receiver and a possible Pro Bowler, too. Godwin is on pace to post nearly 800 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns this year.
Of course, given the Bucs’ difficulty in running the ball this season, you could argue that Hunt would be the better pick right now in Tampa Bay – just like you could make the case that James would immediately help the Bucs more than Vea would. It took Godwin until his final catch of the season to record his first NFL touchdown, but it was the game-winner against the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints. Now Godwin has three touchdowns in his first four games this year.
It will take some time for Vea to develop and make an impact, especially after missing all of training camp and the preseason, but you would be foolish to call him a bust at this juncture. McCoy was called a bust during his first two seasons in Tampa Bay before going to six straight Pro Bowls and developing into one of the better players in Bucs history. It takes time to develop along the defensive line.