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Vita Vea transitions from force of nature to fledgling leader for Bucs defense

The 27-year-old Pro Bowler participated at the first organized team activity Tuesday
Bucs defensive tackle Vita Vea (50) stops Rams running back Cam Akers (23) during the fourth quarter of last season's NFC divisional playoff at Raymond James Stadium. Vea was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season, and signed a four-year, $73 million extension in January.
Bucs defensive tackle Vita Vea (50) stops Rams running back Cam Akers (23) during the fourth quarter of last season's NFC divisional playoff at Raymond James Stadium. Vea was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season, and signed a four-year, $73 million extension in January. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 17

TAMPA — Most of Tuesday’s sights at AdventHealth Training Center, from the pick-sixes to the personnel groupings, arrived with a stern disclaimer: It was Day 1 of a voluntary phase of the Bucs offseason.

“It’s the first day,” new coach Todd Bowles said following the team’s inaugural organized offseason activity. “Obviously competition, spirits are high, we’ll see where we are in the middle of training camp.”

Yet by the end of this morning session that spanned nearly two hours, there was one massive takeaway, listed at 347 pounds.

Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea, who clearly didn’t have to show up, did so anyway.

“On Day 1, it’s just one of those things that, you know, come in and be together as a group,” the fifth-year veteran said. “We’ve got a real young group, we’ve got a couple of young guys that we’ve got to get together on the field and off the field to get that camaraderie going.”

Roughly two months remain before training camp, and the preseason doesn’t kick off until mid-August, but those seeking a positive prior to Memorial Day encountered one Tuesday. A year after Tom Brady called for his peers to stand united in their boycott of the offseason in an effort to modify spring/summer work rules, Vea was among several starters participating Tuesday.

Others included center Ryan Jensen, right tackle Tristan Wirfs, tight end Cameron Brate, safeties Antoine Winfield Jr., Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan; and cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean.

“It was impressive,” Bowles said. “We had a lot of guys out there, a lot of starters out there. We got a lot of work done, the recall was pretty good. We’re just going to keep going.”

The appearance of Vea, who signed a four-year, $73 million extension in January, seemed to bear a bit more significance.

Now that the team doesn’t appear inclined to re-sign 35-year-old Ndamukong Suh (as evidenced by its selection of defensive tackle Logan Hall with the draft’s 33rd overall pick), Vea, 27, seems ready to accept the leadership mantle, though he acknowledges the role doesn’t come naturally.

“It feels kind of weird,” said Vea, a newlywed who married longtime girlfriend Alexus Atchley in March. “I like to play around a lot, so I think I’ve just got to cut that out a little bit, try to step into that leader role and try to take control.”

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While tackle William Gholston (age 30) and backup nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches (28) are chronologically the defensive front’s elder statesmen, Vea clearly is the cornerstone, capable of dissecting a pocket and disrupting an offensive scheme. His four sacks, five tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits and three pass deflections last season all established or tied career highs.

As if bent on building the momentum from 2021, he appears close to his playing weight already. Vea also was listed at 347 pounds at last year’s training camp when former coach Bruce Arians said he wanted him a few pounds lighter.

“Right now I’m just happy he’s here,” Bowles said. “He’s here, he’s working and he always ends up where we want him to be come training camp time.”

Now comes a weightier role: Defensive leader, and dare we say, mentor. If Tuesday’s appearance was any sign, Vea seems poised to embrace it.

“I feel pretty comfortable with it,” he said.

“I think we’ve got some other guys in our group that are older than me that also play that position, so I don’t think it’s all on me. I think it’s as a collective group. I think we do a good job of working together, of taking that leadership role when there needs to be leadership.

“I think that’s the best thing about it, because we all call each other out on our BS, so it works out for us.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

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