The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will hold their annual rookie mini-camp this weekend, which means the team's 22 newest players will arrive at team headquarters on Thursday for orientation and then hit the practice field for the first time on Friday.
The mini-camp is mandatory for the rookies and an option for first-year players, but it is off-limits for veterans. Thus it will be another week before, say, Vita Vea lines up next to Gerald McCoy or Jameis Winston hands off to Ronald Jones. Still, the veterans can be around, in the building for introductions if they wish. If team captain Lavonte David wanted to meet Vea, for instance, the Buccaneers' first-round pick probably wouldn't be hard to find.
"I still haven't seen him but the buzz around the locker room is that he's s a big guy," said David with a smile. "So, that's my anticipation right now just to see how big he is at first and then we'll see how he does on the field."
It is Vea's size – he's currently listed at 6-4 and 347 pounds, though the Bucs will get their own official measurements this weekend – coupled with surprisingly quick feet that made him a coveted player in this year's draft. The Buccaneers landed the Pac 10 Defensive Player of the Year with the 12th pick after a short trade back from number seven. They envisioned pairing him up with McCoy in the middle, and adding him to a rotation that also includes Beau Allen, to make things much harder on opposing interior blockers.
At the same time, the addition of Vea (not to mention Allen in free agency) should make things a lot easier for David and his fellow linebackers. That's a talented group to begin with. David is widely regarded as one of NFL's best 4-3 outside linebackers, Kwon Alexander is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and 2017 rookie Kendell Beckwith was the most pleasant surprise of last season. Still, the Buccaneers finished last in yards allowed in 2017 and stopped neither the run nor the pass to their satisfaction. David thinks Vea and a revamped line can help the linebackers utilize their talents and get back to the way things were headed in the second half of the 2016 season.
"It's helps us out a lot," said David. "That's the philosophy. You want your D-linemen to drop plays, get upfield and let your linebackers flow. That' the way Coach [Mike] Smith wants it and I feel like those guys are going to get the job done."
The Buccaneers also added defensive tackle Mitch Unrein in free agency and found a new pair of starting ends in Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry. Vea is the biggest of the bunch but the team is much more stout up front overall, or at least looks well-positioned to be. David knows the addition of sheer size on the front line is particularly important when playing in the NFC South.
"I think it's really big," he said. "With our division, you have a lot of teams that run that zone running scheme. So when you have a guy who can get up field and disrupt or a big guy who takes up two guys, it's really smooth for linebackers to flow and get downfield to make more TFLs. So we're looking forward to that. It's all talk right now so we just have to put it together first."
David has shown that he's more than capable of taking advantage of opportunities in the backfield when the players in front of him create the right gaps and occupy the right blockers. No linebacker in the league has more than David's 59.5 run stuffs since he entered the league in 2012; the only player at any position with a higher total is Houston defensive end J.J. Watt (69.5). Watt and David also rank 1-2 in the NFL in that span in tackles for loss (TFLs); Watt has 123, David 93.
David said the Bucs' defense met at the end of last season to review its production, and found the results "embarrassing" and "disappointing." He says there is a sense of urgency in that group to get it right in 2018. The pieces seem to be in place, on paper, and now comes the hard work. The next step, coming in about a week, is to finally put the returning veterans together with their new rookie teammates.
"We added a lot of new additions and things are going well so far, man," said David. "Everything looks good on paper. We just have to put it all together. Get the rookies in, the new draft class, the guys who are going to help us in a big way. Once those guys get in and we put it all together, things should be on the up and up."