The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got some extra draft capital about an hour into the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft on Thursday night. Then they got their man.
The Buccaneers trade with Buffalo Bills transformed their original seventh pick into the 12th selection, a deal worth it for the acquisition of the 53rd and 56th picks in Round Two (Tampa Bay also sent back pick #255). Since they knew Buffalo was moving up in order to take a quarterback, that meant they only had four other picks to worry about until they were on the clock again. They made the deal knowing their top remaining player could be gone at the lower spot, and they obviously had contingency plans, but they also hoped they could get both the extra picks and their original target.
That, as Head Coach Dirk Koetter would later call it, would be a "win-win." And the Bucs won.
There were some tense moments, though.
"So, we got the call [from Buffalo], we thought about taking our guy there," said General Manager Jason Licht. "He was in play there. We would have been very happy taking him there. We took a risk moving back. All the work that we did, intel that we did, we knew that there was a pretty good shot [we could get [Vea]. A couple of teams there, we were a little nervous about but we also had other players that we could have taken too. Fortunately for us, we're sitting here talking about Vita. I couldn't be happier."
In reality, the Buccaneers' wait to acquire Vea was a lot more than the half-hour or so that ticked off the clock between picks seven and 12. Tampa Bay's interest in the surprisingly nimble 347-pound linemen had been percolating for quite some time.
"Vita is a guy that we've liked for a long time here," said Licht. "Very early in the process he's a guy that we identified that could really, really help us. He's not only a great run stuffer but he's also got athleticism, freakish athleticism, for a 347-pound guy and he holds that 347 very well. He's going to help us in a lot of areas."
Had Vea gone to a team with a pick between eight and 12 – perhaps the Miami Dolphins and their Ndamukong Suh-less defensive line – the Buccaneers would have moved on to the next player at the top of their board and still almost certainly acquired a player who could make an instant impact on their 32nd-ranked defense. There's a decent chance that player would have been a cornerback or safety, and indeed Koetter said a month before the draft that it was "logical" to believe Tampa Bay would go in that direction in the third round. But Vea made it to 12 and the Bucs thought he would make the biggest difference to that defense.
"I know that there are plenty of folks out there that thought we were going to go with a DB with this pick, but we have to get better on defense either way," said Koetter. "So, whether you're putting pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run or whether you're covering the receivers better, they're both positives. We also picked up some picks where we can address some of our other needs."
Tampa Bay now has a defensive line that can easily run eight or nine deep, a model that worked well in Philadelphia last year as the Eagles rolled to their first Super Bowl title. In fact, two of the new players in that D-Line rotation were Eagles in 2017, as the Bucs signed both defensive tackle Beau Allen and defensive end Vinny Curry in March. In the middle of the line specifically, where Vea will play, the top-three rotation of Allen, Vea and six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy looks like an embarrassment of riches.
It also looks like a challenge, figuring out the best way to get the most out of all three of those players. The Buccaneers wouldn't have drafted Vea without some plan to take care of that – after all, this was a decision made over the course of months, not during one 10-minute stretch on the draft clock – but they also have months to tinker with it before the start of the season. Fortunately, both Vea and McCoy have the talent to handle several different jobs along the line.
"Like I said, [he has] freakish athleticism for his size," said Licht of Vea. "They stand him up [at Washington] sometimes in some of their sub packages off of the edge and he was productive in that too. So, one of the biggest tings we loved about him is that he can play the three [-technique], he can play the nose, he can play the five [-technique] in your run packages and he can get after the quarterback. So versatility and the type of kid he was, he was that man that we wanted."
Added Koetter: I think all those guys have different strengths and weaknesses including - we've got an All-Pro guy in Gerald. We're going to continue to look at the best ways to use those guys and move them around and bringing Beau Allen in and Mitch Unrein and Curry, of course JPP [Jason Pierre-Paul], Noah [Spence], Will [Gholston]. We've really improved our depth and we feel like Vita is athletic enough to play three different positions, but Gerald's athletic enough to play three different positions too. We'll see how it works out, but we're elated with the pick."