Sat, 02 Jul 2022

2022 Buccaneers Schedule Roundtable: Top Rookie Opponent

20 May 2022, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay BuccaneersThe Bucs may not face any rookie quarterbacks in 2022, depending on how quickly any of them get into the lineup, but they will encounter a long list of impact rookies, including a couple in their own divisionby Brianna Dix, Amy Schwartz & Scott Smith

There are two major tentpole events for the NFL in the spring: the draft and the schedule release. Until recently, they arrived in the reverse order, with the schedule usually dropping around mid-April and the draft falling at the end of the month. A couple years ago, the NFL moved its annual release of the schedule into May, which technically means they could tweak a couple dates based on what happens in the draft.

For instance, if the first two picks were quarterbacks and their new NFL teams were slated to play each other, the league could immediately pit them against each other in Week One. This actually happened in 2015, before the move of the schedule release, when the league correctly guessed that the Tampa Bay Buccaneer would take Jameis Winston first and the Tennessee Titans would nab Marcus Mariota second. I refuse to believe it was a coincidence that the Titans opened their season in Tampa that year, with Mariota getting the upper hand in a 42-14 blowout.

There are no obvious parallels this year because the quarterbacks were disregarded for most of the first two rounds and there isn't a single one that looks like a very good bet to be starting on Week One. Perhaps the first marquee matchup of highly-drafted rookies will be in Week Two, when the Giants and edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux take on the Panthers and tackle Ikem Ekwonu.

As for the Buccaneers, they don't have a first-round pick to match up with another rookie, but as a team they will get plenty of exposure to the league's most intriguing rookies. In Week Two, for instance, they will find some new faces in the Superdome, as the Saints will be integrating wide receiver Chris Olave and tackle Trevor Penning into their offense. In Week Three, they will see how quickly Georgia rookies Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt are able to make an impact on Green Bay's defense.

The list goes on and on, but we're here to pick out a few of the highlights. As Staff Writer/Reporter Brianna Dix, Digital Contributor Amy Schwartz and I finish up a week's worth of Roundtable discussions regarding the Buccaneers' 2022 schedule, we turn our attention to the Class of '22 and see how it might provide Tampa Bay with some fresh challenges. Today, each of us will name the player we think will be the top rookie the Buccaneers will face this season.

This is the last of our five Roundtables on the 2022 schedule. You can review them all here:

Friday, May 13: What is your*most anticipated game*on the Bucs' 2022 schedule?

Monday, May 16: What is*one thing you would change*about the Bucs' schedule if you had the power?

Tuesday, May 17: What one thing would you most like to*thank the NFL schedule makers*for this year?

Wednesday, May 18: What is the*toughest stretch of games*on this year's schedule?

Thursday, May 19: Who is the top rookie the Buccaneers will face on their 2022 schedule.

In order to get a wider variety of responses, we have established the rule that picks cannot be duplicated among the three of us. That potentially makes the order of our entries important, and so we have rotated that order from day to day. We finish up with Amy in the first position, me second and Brianna third.

That means Amy gets first crack at identifying the top rookie the Buccaneers will face this season. Take it away, Amy.

Amy Schwartz: Atlanta Falcons WR Drake London

The Atlanta Falcons have had a busy offseason rebuilding their roster from the top down. One main focus has been the wide receivers room, which will look quite different when training camp arrives. The Buccaneers scooped up wide receiver Russell Gage from the Falcons in free agency to fill a key need. With the departure of Gage and the indefinite suspension of Calvin Ridley, the Falcons have needed to add key pieces as the 2022 season approaches.

The Falcons have nearly a dozen receivers currently on the roster. However, I am most intrigued with rookie wide receiver Drake London from USC. London was picked eighth overall by the Falcons in the 2022 NFL Draft and adds key size and ball skills to the roster. London was the first receiver off the board in the draft and has experience playing inside in the slot but also has had success as a perimeter receiver. The 6-4 receiver's ability to create separation will make him a threat for any defense.

The Bucs will see London for the first time in Week Five at Raymond James Stadium. They'll then wait until the final week of the season before heading to Atlanta in Week 18 to face London again. Atlanta will be interesting to watch this season with quarterback Marcus Mariota taking over the offense.

Scott Smith: Baltimore Ravens S Kyle Hamilton

This year's draft started off with five straight defensive players, including three edge rushers and two cornerbacks, but as it turns out the Buccaneers won't face any of their new teams (Jacksonville, Detroit, Houston and the two New York squads) in the 2022 regular season. To me, that leaves Baltimore's Hamilton as the rookie defender most likely to have a negative impact on Tampa Bay's season.

The Buccaneers play the Ravens on a Thursday night in Week Eight, and by then I would expect Hamilton to be fully integrated into the Baltimore secondary. Halfway into the season, the Ravens' coaching staff probably will have figured out multiple ways to deploy their versatile new defender. Baltimore already had a talented group of cornerbacks and now they have reloaded at the back end of their secondary with Hamilton and former Saints safety Marcus Williams. This could be one of the most daunting defensive backfields that Tom Brady and the Buccaneers face all season.

On the opening night of the draft, the Ravens characteristically stood pat and let the best prospect fall to them, as they got Hamilton, widely considered a top-five talent, at pick number 14. Hamilton didn't go in the top five largely due to positional value and perhaps an underwhelming 40-yard dash time at the Combine, but in a couple years he's probably going to look like a steal.

The 6-4, 220-pound Hamilton is a big safety with the ability to be an enforcer over the middle but he also has the coverage skills to play over the top or erase opponents' tight ends from the picture. He's a hard hitter with good ball skills and the instincts and intelligence to make plays all over the field. If any rookie is going to throw a wrench in the Bucs' plans this season, I think it will be Ravens' Hamilton.

Brianna Dix: Panthers OT Ikem Ekwonu

This may not be the flashiest choice; however, any football guru knows the battle is won in the trenches. The Carolina Panthers took the first offensive player off the board in the 2022 NFL Draft with offensive tackle, Ikem Ekwonu. In previous years, quarterbacks have been the coveted position, with a plethora being taken in the top 10. However, in 2022, the first round was riddled with an abundance of talent at the offensive tackle/guard positions. Ekwonu is the top rookie that the Buccaneers will face this year. He was touted as the best run-blocking lineman in the draft, dubbed as "Mr. Pancake." Ekwonu is powerful at the point of attack with the speed to track and finish second level defenders. His tenacity and nasty demeanor are traits that will serve him well in the pros.

The Bucs first face the Panthers in Week Seven at Carolina for a 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff, giving Ekwonu several games to get acclimated to the NFL. He will have gained continuity with the Panthers' offensive line and have a myriad of counter moves to combat pass rushers flying off the edge. He is an enforcer on the blindside and Ekwonu will solidify the Panthers' front in protecting whoever competes with Sam Darnold for the gig and wins the job. Ekwonu will boost the team's run game by providing creases for Christian McCaffrey.

He is a tone-setter and provides an upgrade at the left tackle spot - a glaring hole for Carolina in recent years. The former North Carolina bulldozer has the intangibles of developing into a Pro Bowl caliber lineman at the pro level. He becomes an X-Factor in the Panthers offensive front and one that could revitalize their running game come fall. For the Buccaneers' defensive staff, he is a player I would not disregard. Winning one-on-one matchups at the line of scrimmage will be crucial.

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