The Bucs got some good news on Friday with regards to Vita Vea’s injured left knee injury. The diagnosis was an injury to the LCL (lateral collateral ligament), and not a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) that would have cost last year’s first-round pick the entire 2019 campaign. An LCL sprain means Vea will not need surgery, and will only miss the entire preseason, as the recovery timetable is 4-8 weeks.
The Bucs haven’t ruled Vea out for the 2019 season opener against San Francisco on September 8, as that would fall within the four-week time range, which was the best-case scenario in terms of his recovery. Vea injured his knee in practice on Tuesday, August 6.
The tricky part for Vea’s recovery timetable is that the Bucs play two games during the first week of the season with a Thursday night game at Carolina on September 12 – just four days after the season opener at home against the 49ers. Will he be ready for one of those games, both, or neither? Times will tell.
If Vea can’t play in the Bucs’ first game or two, what is the team’s plan at nose tackle? Veteran Beau Allen will start in between three-technique defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who will line up on the weak side, and defensive end Will Gholston, who will man the strong side in Todd Bowles’ 3-4 scheme. Fifth-year veteran Rakeem Nunez-Roches will likely serve as the backup nose tackle to the start the season behind Allen if Vea can’t play.
The Bucs will likely keep at least six defensive linemen, and maybe seven on the initial 53-man roster if it looks like Vea may miss the first game or two of the regular season. Suh, Vea, Gholston and Allen are locks, and it looks like Nunez-Roches and Jeremiah Ledbetter, who is in his second season, are the front runners to fill out the depth chart based on their great starts to training camp and their solid play in the preseason opener at Pittsburgh. Both Nunez-Roches (6-2, 307) and Ledbetter (6-3, 295) have position versatility to play up and down the line of scrimmage, which helps their chances of making the team.
If the Bucs need to keep an extra defensive lineman for a week or two into the regular season in case Vea is inactive, it could be seventh-round pick Terry Beckner (6-4, 295) or Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a seventh-round pick in 2017, who was just re-signed for depth in training camp and the preseason.
Tu’ikolovatu spent his first two years with the Bucs on injured reserve, but did go through the offseason with Tampa Bay before being released on May 31, so he does have an understanding of Bowles’ defensive system. There is no guarantee that Tu’ikolovatu makes the 53-man roster, though.