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Buccaneers rookie recap: Week 16

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Tampa Bay’s rookies put together their best collective effort of the season during Sunday’s 27-20 loss to the Cowboys.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of disappointment surrounding the Buccaneers in 2018. Their latest rookie class has been one of the driving forces behind that disappointment for much of the season. However, week 16 was the group’s best collective performance to date. Sure, that performance came in a 27-20 loss to the Cowboys and one week won’t erase the inconsistency of a whole season, but it was still encouraging nonetheless. Let’s get on with this week’s rookie recap.

DT Vita Vea

Sunday was yet another step forward for Vita Vea, who has been one of Tampa Bay’s more consistent players over the last few weeks. In the Bucs’ latest loss, the first-rounder picked up three tackles (two solo) and a sack while playing 44 snaps (85 percent of the defense’s total). He nearly had two sacks on the day, but an unfortunate reach on one ended up in a facemask call. Regardless, Vea is definitely improving and showing signs of why the Bucs were so excited to select him with the No. 12 pick in the draft.

The Washington product is up to 24 tackles and three sacks this season. After missing a considerable amount of time in the preseason and early in the season, he took a while to ease into the NFL game. In his first bit of action, the coaching staff held off on giving him a lot of snaps. But as the weeks have passed, Vea has played more and more snaps and gotten better because of it. Combine the increasing experience with whatever was said in that meeting with general manager Jason Licht prior to the team’s game against the 49ers and you have a player that is coming into his own at the end of his first season in the league. Veteran Jason Pierre-Paul had this to say about Vea on Wednesday:

“I can’t wait to see him grow. He’s starting to come along. He’s a rookie, man. I can’t say too much about rookies because I was one at a particular time. He’s growing, he’s growing, he’s growing. I can see the growth. I can’t wait to see him in year two when he’s tossing people around and knowing how to use his strength because right now he’s a rookie and he’s coming along pretty well. Injury happened with him and took him out before he could actually play a real game. Right now, he’s learning, learning and he’s coming along, so I can only imagine into next year. I had a talk with him already. I said, ‘Next year when you come in here, they’re going to be expecting big things from you and I’m going to be expecting big things from you because what I see you doing now, man you’re a big guy and you’re just tossing people.’ I’m excited to see him keep growing and excited to see what he [has] next year in store.”

CB Carlton Davis

Last week, Vea was the only notable rookie in the Bucs’ loss to the Ravens. This week, he had others join him. Carlton Davis has been one of Tampa Bay’s more consistent rookies throughout the season. He had been less noticeable as of late, but he quietly put together a good game on Sunday in Dallas. He picked up two tackles (both solo) and forced a fumble (that the Bucs failed to recover). On top of the numbers, he held Amari Cooper to basically nothing. Cooper, who had been on fire since being traded from Oakland to Dallas, finished the day with four catches for 20 yards. Davis was tasked with covering him, and he more than held his own.

Davis’ performance in 2018 has been largely overlooked, mostly due to the overall struggles of the defense. With Brent Grimes failing to live up to his past success in Tampa, Davis has been thrown into a No. 1 cornerback role at the age of 21. On Sunday, he played 52 snaps (100 percent). There have been ups and downs, but for the most part, the second-rounder has shown plenty of encouraging signs. Here is what interim defensive coordinator Mark Duffner had to say on Wednesday when asked about Davis’ future as a starter in the NFL:

“I think he is. I think he’s got the length and the speed and the change of direction. He’s certainly a confident player – that’s a spot you need to be confident in. He’s got a lot of the attributes that we think are necessary for a guy to be a successful corner. So yeah, I’m excited about where I think he’s heading.”

S Jordan Whitehead

Speaking of overlooked performances throughout 2018, Jordan Whitehead falls under the same category. The fourth-rounder has put together a solid rookie year, especially considering the position he has been thrown into. Tampa Bay’s secondary was already suspect heading into the year, but injuries have thinned it out even more. With Chris Conte going down with a season-ending injury early in the year and Justin Evans getting hurt more recently, Whitehead has had to step up. He still isn’t playing a ton of snaps, as he got 31 (60 percent) on Sunday. But in the snaps he is playing, the former Pitt Panther has grown week by week. In the loss to the Cowboys, he had a team-high seven tackles (all solo), with one going for a loss.

Whitehead is Tampa Bay’s second-leading tackler this season with 73. Considering his status as a fourth-round pick, it feels like the safety has played well above his projected value this season. It should be interesting to see what he can do if (when) a new defensive staff comes along in the near future. It’s clear that there’s talent to work with, and Whitehead certainly plays hard.

The best of the rest

Second-rounder Ronald Jones II got zero offensive snaps on Sunday, but played 14 (52 percent) on special teams... Second-round corner M.J. Stewart also had 14 snaps (52 percent) on special teams, but he didn’t play on defense... Considering how ineffective the Bucs’ offensive line has been, it was good to see third-rounder Alex Cappa getting some looks. He played 28 snaps (35 percent) against the Cowboys. Of course, there have been mixed results for him during the little playing time he has gotten this season... Fifth-round receiver Justin Watson was inactive... Sixth-round linebacker Jack Cichy has been out since tearing his ACL in week seven... Undrafted free agent Shaun Wilson has been on injured reserve since mid-November with a shoulder issue.