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Bucs nose tackle Vita Vea has a contract worth $71 million but does the worth of his play match that number?

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler recently released a list of the top 10 players at the defensive tackle position, heading into 2023. There were some obvious names in the top 10, but one notable exclusion from Fowler’s top 10 was Bucs nose tackle Vita Vea.

Vea has been a force on the defensive line since Tampa Bay drafted him with the 12th overall pick out of the University of Washington in the 2018 NFL Draft (Flashbacks of the Dirk Koetter, Mike Smith days). Jason Licht has nabbed some big fish in the draft during his tenure as Tampa Bay’s GM. Vita Vea, in a literal and non-literal sense, has to be included in that list. Vea has established himself as a stalwart in Tampa Bay’s young core of the future. The 2018 first-round pick has increased his sack numbers each year since 2020 and has gone on to earn himself a second contract with the team. The question is, with Bucs valuing Vea as highly as they do, are they getting an equal return on their investment?

The defensive tackle position, like many other positions on the field, isn’t always as straightforward as one player is better than another, different systems ask their players to do different things. Vea is a true, traditional nose tackle, not all defensive tackles are. As a nose tackle, Vea is not a pass rusher by nature. His role isn’t always to put numbers in the sack column. That means, for Tampa’s tackle, some of his stats are not going to tally up favorably next to his peers. Even with an admission of expected statistical imbalance, there is still a great deal of value Vea is capable of bringing to a defense on game days, when he’s on the field.

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In his professional career, Vita Vea has only played a full year’s worth of games twice. Two seasons out of five. When he is active and suited up on game days, Tampa’s nose tackle has shown a proclivity for substitution. Defensive coaches often express a desire to have a healthy rotation of guys on their defensive fronts, in order to keep fresh legs in the game, but imagination can’t help but get the best of me. If Todd Bowles was isolated in a dark room with the cameras turned off and microphones unplugged, would he be content with his nose tackle’s snap counts? How happy is he when he sees one of his best defensive players warming the bench?

It is worth mentioning Vea was acknowledged by Jeremy Fowler, securing an honorable mention placement on the list. Taking home a fringe top 10 ranking amongst the players at your position is nothing to sneeze at but, there is certainly a claim to be made that there are not 10 defensive tackles who have more talent than Vita Vea. That begs the follow up question— Is Tampa Bay’s 350 pound defensive anchor leaving too much meat on the bone? When Vea was credited with his honorable mention, here is snippet of what Fowler wrote in the article (referencing quotes from an NFC executive).

“[Vita Vea] is a great player… He can disappear a bit.”

“It’s hard to affect the run and the pass every down… Hard to put [him] above some of these others. But he’s a great disruptor.”

To Vea’s credit, last season was the highest recorded sack total of his Bucs career. His 6.5 sacks led all Tampa Bay defenders, which may say more about the rest of Tampa’s 2022 pass rush than Vea himself. Still, leading the team is leading the team. Being credited with honorable mention status is certainly complimentary, it tops him ahead of a majority of his peers, but is it incumbent on Tampa Bay’s nose tackle to be ranked higher? Few would argue he lacks the ability to do so. The “disruptor” portion of the quote is a fair notion and why Vea allowing himself to “disappear” feels so wrong. Regardless of numbers, any close observer of Tampa Bay games in recent years has seen moments where Vita Vea has absolutely taken over. His brute force and strength are capable of overwhelming his opponents.

Either way, Tampa’s nose tackle is heading into his sixth NFL season. He should be right in the middle of his prime. He has been given a massive salary, now maybe it is time to give him massive expectations. Vea is 28 years old and coming off one of his best seasons, another step forward in 2023 could earn him a top 10 spot on next year’s list.

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