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.

Bucs DT Vita Vea - Photo by: Mary Holt/PR
Bucs DT Vita Vea – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR

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.

Former Bucs DT Warren Sapp, DE Marcus Jones and DT Brad Culpepper - Photo by: Getty Images
Former Bucs DT Warren Sapp, DE Marcus Jones and DT Brad Culpepper – Photo by: Getty Images

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.

Bucs DT Vita Vea - Photo by: Mary Holt/PR
Bucs DT Vita Vea – Photo by: Mary Holt/PR

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.

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Scott Reynolds is in his 24th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his son's Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]
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slaythembucs
1 year ago

You say the first interception is not Winston’s fault and i disagree. He had a good amount of space in the front and he needs to step up the pocket when there is pressure. All the good QBs step up when they sense pressure on the outside provided they have space in the front. Any QB can throws dimes when given a complete clean pocket. I’m don’t know if these small things are instincts or things that can be coached but sure are required to be a franchise QB. Winston for now just doesn’t have them. He is definitely a… Read more »

MudManVA
1 year ago

No one knows better than Koetter & Smith that they are coaching for their jobs. Changing DC after 4 games is crazy. Maybe modern NFL football has passed Smith by, but making a coordinator change at this point has more down side than upside. Most defenses are getting torched with the new rule changes, shoot look at NO, Minn, Philly, ATL just to name a few (they were supposed to be good). Did Zimmer & Quinn forget how to coach D? There are only a few defenses that are good under old standards: Bears, JAX and that is about it.… Read more »

MudManVA
1 year ago
Reply to  MudManVA

PS-If Monken is so great then why didn’t the BUCS score more than 10 points against the Bears, and in 4 games why don’t the BUCS run the ball more effectively? (Barber isn’t great, but he doesn’t suck either)

The back-up QB, OC, and DC are always better than the starter that loses.
Come on we’re better than that

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Buc stops here
1 year ago
Reply to  MudManVA

MudManVA – agree completely. No one should be screaming about them being 2-2. Maybe beating the high flying Saints and their offense and the Super Bowl champs made everyone think in one year this team is fixed and ready to go. It is not. One other thing to add what you wrote – who thinks Koetter, who Smith stuck with in Atlanta no matter how bad things got after they won division titles and never won a Super Bowl, is going to now turn around and dump his life-long coaching friend? I like the suggestion above to keep him on… Read more »

tbb345
1 year ago
Reply to  MudManVA

Your comment about Vea vs. James fails to take into account context and needs at the time. Yeah, there are injuries now but even if the defensive backfield was healthy it would still be garbage. The line, when healthy, has the talent to be good. I’ve noticed in reading this column that it seems like Scott wants to make a certain point then will put in whatever work is needed to make that point. Some points have a ton of data and back-up whereas others have basically nothing and come off as lazy. It’s a distressing pattern. And the James… Read more »

Bob Will
1 year ago

I am just a huge football fan, I really don’t know football technically but have been a fan of the game for over 60 years and a Buc’s fan since day one. That being said I listen to people who should know some of the answers, former players and coaches who announce and analyze games on television and radio. NFL TV and NFL radio on XM satellite radio. Regardless of our Head Coaches Smart Butt statement that Smitty didn’t miss a tackle or a coverage, down to the last person everyone I listen to says this system will never work.… Read more »

BucWild02
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Will

Great point Bob. Well stated, sir.

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Ron Potter
1 year ago

GREAT ARTICLE! Will it get done? Probably not. But you can’t expect the offense to carry a 32nd ranked defense into the playoffs and Mike Smith is at the top of the “we’ve seen this before” meltdowns AND the two-year ranking of last place. I really sympathize with professional Sportswriters like you guys and everyone else covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It must be incredibly frustrating to try to give us fans other topics besides the ONE MOST IMPORTANT TOPIC that could really give this team hope for improvement on the defense…. hope for more wins… hope for the playoffs.… Read more »

Alldaway 2.0
1 year ago

If the Bucs played vanilla cover 2/cover 3 90% they would definitely not give up 400 yards per game. That is how bad things are that playing vanilla cover 2 would be an upgrade lol.

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surferdudes
1 year ago

I was calling for Dotson, and Grimes to be replaced this year for the very reasons you stated Scott. Time has caught up to both players. It was obvious to many of us why not Licht? Maybe it was, but drafting Cappa, and Stewart wasn’t the answer. M.J. might be to slow for the NFL game, and Cappa coming from a small school had no experience playing either R.G., or R.T.. How as a G.M. do you move up into the 3rd for a player you have to project what they might become in the NFL? Pointing to Marpet as… Read more »

DrT1066
1 year ago

As a 42 year season ticket holder I reflected upon having spent about $100,000 on season tickets! What could I have done with the money instead? More things for the children and grandchildren? An MBA that I’ve thought about? 42 years of primarily frustration must be some sort of psychopathology, don’t you think? Yes, I spent time in the Old Sombrero with the paper shopping bag,when they had them, over my head. I’ve sat through raging thunderstorms like many other fans. Yes, I have been entertained. Record-setting games by the opponents. There are many more than just Mitchell Trubisky. And… Read more »

Deborah Hall
1 year ago

I can only respond to negative comments regarding my son, Brent. One minute you like him and the next he is a liability. Obviously none of you know Brent or you wouldn’t say the things you do. The person that wrote this story with his comments needs to meet with Brent and just maybe you would understand real football actions.

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BucRy
1 year ago
Reply to  Deborah Hall

Brent was good in his prime, but he is 35, always injured, and just not the player he used to be. These are facts, he was good, but it’s time for him to hang it up. He has been a liability this season.

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BucWild02
1 year ago
Reply to  Deborah Hall

No one hates the man. As fans, I think we all admire his journey. I think we’ve been entertained by his game. He just hasn’t been the same this season. There’s plenty of blame to go around for the two losses. Fitzpatrick, Alexander, David, and Grimes will shoulder much of the blame for their performances on the field in those two losses. They played poorly and they aren’t rookies. These are the savvy veteran leaders of the team. Everyone expects better performances from those guys, probably including themselves. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

Buc-n-Philly Fan
1 year ago
Reply to  Deborah Hall

Ms. Hall, you have every right to be proud of what your Son has accomplished. By no means would any crticism be meant towards the person, son, husband or father but to a level of play that is backed up by game film. This does not question the character of the man but it does question the ability of his skill sets at this point in time. His playwas a factor in an embarrassing loss. I am sure he recognizes it as well. To say that reporters or fans should not comment on this level of play is naive to… Read more »

Deborah Hall
1 year ago

Brent has been hurt and no one knows that better than him. Yes it is a reporters job to write about the players, but shouldn’t they know and report the truth. Maybe we are looking at different tapes, but Brent does what he is told.

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BucRy
1 year ago
Reply to  Deborah Hall

We are not hating on him as a person so please don’t take it that way.

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Horse
1 year ago
Reply to  Deborah Hall

Deborah Hall, I believe it was stated for weeks Brett had an injury. I was quite surprised once Brett was given the okay to play that he would be the starter after missing so much time. It wasn’t fair for him or the fans for Mike Smith to start Brett after missing all those weeks. Chicago took advantage of the situation, but it is the game of football. I know you’re a very proud of your son and well you should. Brett has had a successful career, but everything must come to an end eventually. I I have the greatest… Read more »

Ron Potter
1 year ago
Reply to  Deborah Hall

It’s an honor as a Bucs fan to read your post, Deborah. Makes me feel good to see that Brent has a very supportive family. Hope he continues being successful here in whatever capacity he plays, and when football is done, I hope that true success follows him and his family in all his endeavors! God bless!

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BucRy
1 year ago

Doesn’t matter, Mike Smith is garbage!

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DT25
1 year ago

Still giving Jones the benefit of the doubt. The dropped pass was ugly, but the definition of a rookie mistake: trying to run before he caught the ball. He’s not the first to do it and surely won’t be the last. When he had blocking, he looked solid on the ground. Unfortunately, he also got completely blown up in the backfield multiple times again, so until our OL gets their shit together, I don’t expect him to break out. Same goes for whatever QB we put back there…the OL was able to protect Fitz well the first two games and… Read more »

FLBoy84
1 year ago

Not sure how the Bucs scouting staff works, but would be curious if the same scout that pimped McNichols also rec’d Jones, being that they are both West Coast RB’s. Sadly Aaron Jones was picked 20 spots after McNichols, would’ve loved to see him as a Buc.

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Jordan Chavez
1 year ago

Gotta hate writing about this because it means at week 5 we are already thinking about coaching changes. I’ve gotta say though If the Glazers do decide to clean house after this season if Koetter posts another losing record… I’m not sure who I would be advocating for as the new GM.. But I definitely know who would be the right choice for Head coach. None other then Chris Peterson coach at UW. If you follow Coach Pete at all you know his programs are built first on a character and secondarily a winning mentality. I think that’s exactly what… Read more »

scot pederson
1 year ago

He got 1 thing right. Mike Smith did not call any blitzes and has not been.

On the other side we have not been leaving protection in or changing protection. Why for a full half we let K. Mack rush against just the Tackle with no TE help?

Putting Winston back in just means more of the same Turnover Machine and he cant connect on the deep ball like Fitz can if Fitz has time.

5-6 wins this season. Another wasted season, poor coaching and sub-par Scouting.

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Mike Wright
1 year ago

I always knew this franchise was not truly serious about Winning another superbowl anytime soon. After all, they hired 2 rejects from the ATL Falcons. Arthur Blanks knew. Due to Koetters Loyalty to his old coach, He will Go down with the ship. Its sad because he will take a few good people with him. Not many fans thought Smitty should have been retained after last yrs sorry Defensive showing. And now, its happenning all over again. Yes, we will flash defensively here and there. Will probably even win in ATL. But I don’t see this team taking off under… Read more »

bucballer
1 year ago

Still think i would like DC Mike Smith on sideline! I see no apparent advantages of being upstairs… at least it doesn’t appear to have helped him make calls! i’m just saying…

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FLBoy84
1 year ago
Reply to  bucballer

He might have an “accident” if he’s that close to the players when he’s making such weak calls during a game… Would love to hear how the players REALLY feel about the D he’s running.

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76Buc
1 year ago

I wish we could all get over the Florida State Washington thing. IT IS OVER!!!!!!!!! We chose the DT not the Safety. Let’s get over it! Please! It’s irrational to keep harping on something that is in the past and can’t be changed. DT is harder and takes longer to develop than safety. Both players are probably going to be very good. Very good safety’s are always available, but 345 pound DTs with speed and athleticism are not. Let’s act rationally. We just don’t what will happen, but we do not have a “way-back machine.” Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit… Read more »

owlykat
1 year ago

Thank you Scot Patterson. There is no excuse for not having a TE help our Tackles by chipping K. Mack. It could have helped avoid a beat down. There also is no excuse for retaining Smitty who is a total BUST of a DC. Otherwise, thank you, thank you, thank you Scott for your written detailed analysis on how to improve the Bucs. Koetter should follow your advice. Your plan is brilliant as usual, and it is a huge improvement over Koetter’s plan to trust Smitty to fix it. Rate this item:Thumb UpThumb DownSubmit Rating00 No votes yet. Please wait...

fredster
1 year ago

So what we know about our Bucs this year. We still have lots of holes. Safety,DT,CB,RT,RG. Benenoch and Dot both stink. Koetter is too stubborn to fire Smoth or at least demote him. Looks like will be blowing it up again at end of year. Koetter is an idiot. Smiths scheme is garbage. It will not work. I just hope they can maybe keep Monken as coordinator. I’m 50/50 on Licht too. He’s made some good moves and some really bad ones.

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fanofdabucs
1 year ago

Good God Buc fans have become as predictable as Mike Smith’s defense. I knen that when Dot struggled against Mack, that the idiotic Buc fans would say that Dot is garbage and washed up. Although he shut down the DEs he face in the first 3 weeks. I understand he had a bad mistake on a blitz pick up against the Steelers, but other than that was very good. Then he was asked for most of the game in which the Bucs trailed, to block to best DE in football..and you yahoos want to say he’s no good because Mack… Read more »

fredster
1 year ago

Fanofdadabucs your the idiot. Go watch games again you moron. He stinks right now period and to say otherwise makes you a jackass. Don’t put words in my mouth I didn’t say “he was washed up” I said he stinks and Benenoch does too. Given his age and knee surgery he just had it’s not looking good this year but who knows maybe he will bounce back. Grimes is washed up and you quote me on that.

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fredster
1 year ago

We also have no depth behind Dot or C. benenoch which is also an issue and why I listed RT and RG as holes.

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fredster
1 year ago

The right side of Bucs line cannot run block either. It’s not all about pass protection from that side but the pass protection has been horrible two games now. Benenoch should be benched like the article says. Benching Dot won’t help there is nobody depth wise it’s bad situation and I wouldn’t bench him just yet anyways.

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EastEndBoy
1 year ago

Can we please stop talking about switching to a new DC being the equivalent of our players having to earn a PhD. These are professional football players. Every DC in the NFL asks his players to do the exact same things. All of our linemen (some better than others) know how to pass rush, play run defense, and stunt. All of our LBs (some better than others) know how to cover TEs and RBs, and they know all of the blitzes ever devised. All of our DBs (some better than others) know how to play press-man and zone. What a… Read more »

plopes808
1 year ago
Reply to  EastEndBoy

Agreed, too many people here are talking as if a DC change could possibly make this defense any worse.

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owlykat
1 year ago

Benenoch should be held accountable by cutting him and picking up another guard to try. Smith should be given a shot and if he cannot do it give Leidkey a try. He should be available at every game because he can play well at Guard and Tackle if needed.

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plopes808
1 year ago

Mike Smith HAS to go at this point. His defensive scheme has done absolutely zero for this team the last 2 seasons so far and there is little to no chance that it will suddenly click and help the team win this year. Our offense has carried the team so far and the defense has done nothing but drag us down. Koetter’s foolish blind loyalty to Smith will result in the entire staff being blown up and starting from scratch again. This is a shame as our offensive staff has done a really good job not only this year, but… Read more »

EricNV
1 year ago

Why is it that Mike Smith seems to want his players to play his scheme regardless of where the players’ strengths lie? I’m quite certain he was influential on each defensive draft pick over the past 3 years, so I’m sure he knew ahead of time these DBs excel at press-man coverage, not zone coverage. The only player on the entire team who seems comfortable in zone coverage is Grimes, and he completely sucks so far this season. It seems like Smith wants to put square pegs into round holes, and hasn’t learned a damn thing from his previous failures… Read more »