TAMPA, Fla. -- For weeks, it seemed like Florida State safety Derwin James would wind up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Just about every major mock draft had projected James or Minkah Fitzpatrick to go to Tampa Bay.
ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay even said, "James going to Tampa Bay seems like the worst-kept secret in the NFL right now." James believed it, too, telling the Dallas Morning News that if the Cowboys wanted to draft him, they "needed to get ahead of the Buccaneers at No. 7."
But even after the Bucs traded down from the No. 7 spot to No. 12 and James was still on the board, they passed, instead drafting 347-pound defensive tackle Vita Vea out of Washington. James fell to the Los Angeles Chargers at No. 17.
So what happened? Had James taken a tumble down the Bucs' draft board after he declined a private workout at his pro day, with general manager Jason Licht in attendance? Did the Bucs view Vea, who has drawn many comparisons to Haloti Ngata, as too good to pass up? Or had draft analysts just gotten it all wrong?
The free-agency factor
The Bucs liked Vea a lot since Day 1, which is why ESPN mentioned him as a player the Bucs should focus on heading into the NFL combine.
But that was before an active free-agency period landed Tampa Bay a new starting nose tackle (Beau Allen), plus Mitch Unrein as a backup, and two new defensive ends (Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul).
The Bucs didn't, however, touch the safety position in free agency, other than re-signing Keith Tandy, who was regarded as the third- or fourth-best safety on the Bucs' roster last season and mostly contributed on special teams.
The combination of free agency, having just two picks in the first three rounds after the trade for Pierre-Paul and pressing needs at running back, cornerback and safety made the Vea pick seem less likely to happen. The Bucs also needed some depth along the offensive line after losing Kevin Pamphile in free agency and Joe Hawley to retirement.
Of course, the decision to trade down from No. 7, for the No. 12, 53 and 56 picks from the Buffalo Bills, changed all that. The Bucs could afford to take best available player and still address needs in other rounds, which they did, selecting running back Ronald Jones, cornerback M.J. Stewart and cornerback Carlton Davis with those picks. They took offensive guard Alex Cappa at No. 94 and safety Jordan Whitehead at No. 117.
James' decision to decline private workout with Bucs
When a player declines a private workout, it's usually a choice made by his agent, who often believes the player had a strong enough combine and doesn't want to risk potential injury.
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Sidney Jones tore an Achilles at his Washington pro day last year and didn't see action until Week 17 because of the injury. This year, NC State defensive end Kentavius Street tore an ACL working out for the New York Giants, and Wisconsin cornerback Nick Nelson suffered a meniscus injury working out for the Detroit Lions.
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey declined private workouts last year but still was drafted eighth overall.
James' agent, David Mulugheta, whose roster featured a whopping nine Pro Bowlers this past year, believed he was acting with James' best interest at heart.
It should be noted that Vea did not participate at his own pro day, nor did he work out privately for teams. But that was because of a hamstring injury suffered while running the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and the short turnaround time before his Washington pro day.
Multiple team sources have said that James declining the workout didn't impact his status with the Bucs and he was still high on their board. But the Bucs did send Licht to James' pro day in Tallahassee, the same thing they did for Bradley Chubb at NC State. Licht doesn't make a ton of those trips. Ideally, when that happens, a player works out for a team. But James still checked out fine for them from an off-the-field standpoint, according to those sources.
How did other teams see Vea and James?
ESPN spoke to scouts and front-office executives from six other teams about James and Vea. Since they typically are not authorized to speak publicly about their draft boards, they were granted anonymity and for this article will be referred to as Team 1, Team 2, etc.
Team 1 had Vea ranked slightly higher than James.
"We loved Vita and there was a consensus love for him," the scout said. "James was a tick behind him, and the feeling for him was kind of mixed."
Team 2 had the same grade on both players, as did Team 3.
The Team 3 executive said both players were graded in the "middle of Round 1."
"He's going to be an an All-Pro player," the executive from Team 3 said of James, who seemed surprised the Bucs passed on him. "[But] Vita is a beast. Good pick."
Team 4 had James as a top-10 prospect and Vea in the 15-20 range, and thought for sure the Bucs would take James when Fitzpatrick went to the Miami Dolphins at No. 11.
"James [is] a rare athletic talent that we thought wouldn't get out of the top 10-12 picks for sure," said the executive from Team 4. "We liked Vita a lot. That's just kind of how he fell on our board. We thought he was a solid value in the middle of the first round."
Team 5 had both in the top 15.
Team 6 had James as a top-10 pick and Vea in the 15-25 range, but a scout noted that it was more of a function of Vea playing the defensive tackle position.
"[Vea] was in my personal top 20 for sure. He was my favorite defensive player," the scout for Team 6 said. "I'm surprised they passed [on] Derwin, but the front seven is scary now. ... The team will rally around how he plays. Not that they wouldn't for Derwin, but it's just amazing what [Vea] does at his size."
The Bucs just really loved Vea
The Bucs still liked James. In fact, some folks within the organization told ESPN they would have been happy with him. But they really loved Vea -- Licht in particular -- because of his enormous size and ability, but also because he fit what they've wanted since putting an extra emphasis on character and personality this offseason.
They want guys who are truly in love with football, who don't get big paychecks and loaf, or who suddenly quit when the game gets out of reach. They want players who can't stand to lose tight games. From Vea's family living out of a Motel 6 to Justin Watson playing for his older brother, Tommy, who has cerebral palsy, they brought in players who have dealt with things that make football adversity and going 5-11 seem minuscule.
Not to say James didn't check those boxes. It's just that Vea won the Bucs over. He walked into One Buc Place, and when Licht asked him what the most important aspect of playing his position was, he told him, "Kick the crap out of the guy in front of me." It was the whole package.
"To have a guy of his size and athleticism and power and all of those things are great, but to have a guy of his character and football character, is the kind of guy we're putting a strong emphasis [on]," Licht said. "We always have, but we're putting an even stronger emphasis on getting [that]. It's more than icing on the cake. Vita is the type of guy that, as a general manager and a head coach, that you dream of getting, in terms of his ability and then what he brings in his character, too."