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Vita Vea, a 346-pound marvel, motivated for big year with Huskies after spurning NFL draft

With a productive 2017 season, Vea could cash in as a potential top-10 pick in the NFL draft next year.

The reinvention of Vita Vea began over lunch at The RAM Restaurant at University Village. It was one afternoon in early January, about a week before the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the NFL draft. Vea ordered a burger. His position coach, Ikaika Malloe, ordered the same.

Malloe had set up the lunch to talk about the future — the short- and long-term future — of one of the strongest, most athletic defensive linemen to ever play for the Washington Huskies. The question of Vea’s immediate future was the most pressing one: Was he going to enter the NFL draft this year?

At that point, Vea’s decision wasn’t entirely clear. He had been telling folks in the program that he was strongly considering turning pro, along with four other UW underclassmen — John Ross III, Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Elijah Qualls — who had already declared for the draft.

Malloe wanted Vea to make an informed decision, wanted to give him and his family as much help as possible toward that goal. Malloe had reached out to an NFL scout friend for some guidance and came to the restaurant armed with figures — massive figures to match what many have long seen as Vea’s vast potential.

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Should he go pro now, Vea was generally projected as a second-round pick. If, for example, Vea were to be selected with the first pick of the second round, he could expect to make a little more than $7 million over the life of a four-year rookie contract, with a signing bonus of about $3.2 million, according to the NFL rookie salary structure. Pretty good, right?

But here’s what really got Vea’s attention, the tipping point in his decision to return to Washington for his redshirt junior season this fall. If he puts together the kind of season Malloe believes he can, Vea could have a chance to vault into the top 10 of the 2018 NFL draft. Even in the NFL, it’s rare to find a 346-pound defensive lineman who runs a 4.8-second 40-yard dash — a guy with “unlimited, untapped potential,” as UW defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski sees in Vea. A guy who, sooner of later, belongs in the NFL.

To give Vea an example of how his future could unfold, Malloe laid out the path of Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen. A year ago, NFL evaluators pegged Allen as a second-round pick. Allen opted to stay at Alabama for his senior season, went on to become the most decorated defensive player in college football last fall, and is now a projected top-five pick in next week’s draft. The No. 5 pick in the draft is projected to get a rookie contract worth $25 million with a $16.5 million signing bonus. Really good, right?

“You’re talking about going from good money, relatively speaking, to great money, where you’re taking care of your family and your kids and so on,”…

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