The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used their first-round picks on defensive players in the 2018 and 2019 drafts, first taking Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea 12th overall and then following up with LSU linebacker Devin White at the fifth pick the next year. This spring, the Buccaneers needed to address their opening at right tackle in the first round but then started Day Two of the 2020 draft with the selection of Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. in the second round.
That's one gifted player to fit right in the middle of each level of the Buccaneers' defense. And those three should be central to a young defense that came on strong in the second half of 2019 taking another step forward this fall.
Vea was already on the team when Bruce Arians arrived as the new head coach in January of 2019 and brought in a staff that included Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. However, Vea's rookie year had gotten off to a slow start thanks to a calf injury suffered very early in his first training camp. The Buccaneers felt like they dodged a bullet when Vea's injury didn't prove season-ending, but he did miss the first three games and then was eased into action, playing roughly 30 snaps a game for the next seven outings.
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Vea's usage kicked up significantly over the last month of 2018, as did his production, and that carried over into 2019. The agile 350-pounder played in every game and averaged about 50 snaps a game, taking part in almost exactly two-thirds of the team's defensive plays. His pairing with Ndamukong Suh in the middle of an active Bucs' defensive front was the key factor in Tampa Bay fielding the NFL's top-ranked run defense. Vea also showed the ability to penetrate the backfield, recording 2.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hits and attracting blockers to free up the team's dominant edge rushers. By the time his sophomore season was winding down, some national analysts were starting to call him one of the most underrated players in the league.
The Buccaneers re-signed Suh in March and still have Will Gholston and Rakeem Nunez-Roches to help in the middle, along with fifth-round pick Khalil Davis, but that won't stop them from featuring their rising-star lineman even more in 2020.
"Vita, depending on the game plan, he'll play a lot more this year," said Bowles during a Thursday videoconference. "Obviously he played a lot last year, too. Sometimes drives linger on and you want to give guys a break, but we don't have a play count this early."
History essentially repeated itself last fall when White also sustained an injury in the early going. Though he did make it through training camp unscathed, the rookie linebacker hurt his knee just a few snaps into the Bucs' Week Two game at Carolina. White essentially missed a month and, like Vea the year before, needed some time to get fully back into stride, both physically and mentally.
Also like Vea, White began to show the potential for dominant play as his rookie season progressed. He finished with 91 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one interception, three passes defensed, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries, two of which he returned for touchdowns. White hit his stride so well, in fact, that he was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in both November and December.
Bowles thinks White can do much more in his second season given a chance to play an unbroken season and continue to absorb the defense without interruption.
"For me, the biggest thing about Devin – obviously he got injured [early in 2019] – is for him to stay healthy, number one, this year going in, and mentally getting a better grasp just like the other rookies did," said Bowles. "[He'll have] a better grasp of the system going in to take command of the defense.
"Like any first-year guy, you grow mentally, and that's a natural progression. It's not going to happen the first year. You get better as the season goes. But when the game slows down [for him], he started playing faster. Obviously, we've got to pick that up again, make sure he's got a great understanding of it and put him in position to make plays, and I think he'll make them."
Clearly, the Buccaneers would like to see that two-year injury trend with their top defensive rookie come to an end in 2020. That would certainly help Winfield in his upcoming battle to win a significant role in Tampa Bay's secondary. The safety position is one of the few on the Bucs' depth chart that looks unsettled heading into training camp, and Winfield will be fighting for snaps along with Jordan Whitehead, Mike Edwards, Justin Evans (assuming he returns to full health), Andrew Adams and D'Cota Dixon. Of course, the Buccaneers didn't use the 45th-overall pick on a safety, when they also could have addressed needs at running back and wide receiver, with the expectation that it would take Winfield long to get on the field.
Winfield, whose father played 191 NFL games as a top-notch cornerback, was one of two Golden Gophers the Bucs' drafted in April, along with fifth-round receiver Tyler Johnson. Bowles was part of a large group of Tampa Bay coaches and scouts who were on hand New Year's Day to watch Minnesota play in the 2020 Outback Bowl, and both future Buccaneers were standouts in the Gophers' 31-24 victory over Auburn.
"He's a smart and a tough football player, and the ball finds him," said Bowles. "That's hard for the ball to find the safeties in college these days. He had a great pedigree. I was actually at the bowl game when they played at the stadium and he was all over the field. He can do multiple things like we have our safeties do. He can play the nickel, he can play strong, he can play free. He can be up, he can be back and he's multi-dimensional so that can't do anything but help us.