Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2021 Schedule Roundtable: Top Rookie Opponent

Casey Phillips, Carmen Vitali and Scott Smith continue their Roundtable Week on the 2021 schedule, debating which NFL newcomer stands out the most on the Bucs' slate of games

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We just missed a full Sunshine State round robin in the NFL this year. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Miami Dolphins and the Dolphins play the Jacksonville Jaguars but, alas, there is no scheduled Bucs-Jags game. Tampa Bay and the NFC South did draw the AFC South for the new 17th game, but the Bucs got matched up with the Indianapolis Colts while the Atlanta Falcons drew the Jaguars. So close!

The big draw for playing Jacksonville this year, of course, is seeing what they have in first-overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence, probably the most hyped quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck. The Buccaneers will have to follow that from afar, but they could potentially face fellow first-round quarterbacks Mac Jones in Week Four, Justin Fields in Week Seven and Zach Wilson in Week 17.

And, of course, there are some pretty notable non-quarterbacks making their debuts this year, and many of them are on the Bucs' schedule, such as Atlanta's Kyle Pitts, the Cowboys' Micah Parsons and the Panthers' Jaycee Horn, just to name a few. And that's our topic of discussion today!

All week, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali, Team Reporter Casey Phillips and I are kicking around in roundtable fashion one topic per day regarding the Buccaneers' recently-released 2021 schedule. On Monday, for instance, we noted our most anticipated games of the fall. Here's the full schedule for the week:

View pictures from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2021 Rookie Mini-Camp

Tuesday, May 18: Who is the top rookie opponent on the Bucs' schedule?

Wednesday, May 19: What is the most significant challenge for Tampa Bay's defense?

Thursday, May 20: What is the most significant challenge for Tampa Bay's offense?

Friday, May 21: What is the toughest stretch of games on this year's schedule?

As noted on Monday, we're following a rule of no duplicating of picks, so order will matter in these Roundtables and we'll rotate that order from day to day. Today, Carmen moves up to the top spot, I go second and Casey wraps it up.

So, who's the top rookie opponent on the Bucs' schedule? Use whatever criteria you like – how excited you are to see them play, how much of a challenge they will present to the Bucs, how successful they will be overall, etc.

View pictures from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2021 Rookie Mini-Camp

Carmen Vitali: Falcons TE Kyle Pitts

The quarterbacks intrigued me a lot – especially Justin Fields if he does indeed take over in Chicago. Mac Jones is still a question mark, too, for New England, so I decided to go with someone the Bucs will definitely have to contend with – and twice a year, at that! Pitts was this year's draft darling and he's a phenomenal talent. Though he's listed as a tight end, he acts as a true receiver and makes those kinds of circus catches that make your eyes pop out of your head. He's being added to an offense that already includes Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley with Matt Ryan at the helm. They're now under offensive guru and new head coach Arthur Smith and the possibilities seem endless as a result.

The Bucs will see Pitts for the first time at home in Week Two. They'll then wait until Week 13 to make the trip up to the peach state. Atlanta is going to be interesting to watch this year as potential competition for the NFC South. The Saints had a lot of turnover from their 2020 division-winning team and the Panthers now also have a new signal caller under center. The Bucs likely won't have a full idea of the Falcons' potential in Week Two but that Week 13 matchup could come at a time when the division picture is a bit clearer – and Pitts could be a big factor if Atlanta sees some success.

Scott Smith: Dolphins EDGE Jaelan Phillips

I was tempted to go with Micah Parsons, but the Bucs play the Cowboys in Week One and I'm not sure Dallas will have figured out exactly how to deploy their new defensive weapon by then. On the other hand, there's not much mystery to what the Dolphins will ask Phillips to do: Get after the quarterback. Speaking of quarterbacks, I stayed away from Fields, Jones and Wilson for the same reason Carmen did: too much uncertainty about when and how well they will play.

There are actually a good number of highly-drafted pass rushers on the Bucs' 2021 schedule, including the Colts' Kwity Paye, the Saints' Payton Turner, the Bills Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham and the Giants' Azeez Ojulari. Paye is tempting because he's going to a team with stud interior linemen, which means he should see plenty of one-on-ones. I just feel like Phillips is the most gifted pass-rusher of the group and the one most likely to have a dominant rookie season.

Tampa Bay's offensive line had a great season in 2020 – it's almost impossible to win a Super Bowl without a strong group of blockers – and I think they'll be even better in 2021. Still, every team has ups and downs during the season in its pass protection, and we all know what magic can be wrought when Tom Brady is consistently given time to stand in the pocket. If I were an opposing defense, getting Brady off his spot would be my number-one goal. The Dolphins have a better chance to do that in Week Five.

By the way, I'm not sure if my fellow Roundtablers knew this but there's a clause in the Roundtable bylaws that says if you choose a team's first-round pick you get ALL of their first-round picks. So I get Jaylen Waddle, too. Game, set, match.

Casey Phillips: Zach Wilson QB Jets

Well Scott by that logic I'm really bummed we don't play the Jags to be able to claim both Travis Etienne and Trevor Lawrence. Instead I'll go with the next quarterback off the board behind Lawrence and take Zach Wilson.

Scott didn't take Parsons because of how early we face the Cowboys. I used similar logic, thinking that by Week 17 this rookie QB will have what used to be a full season under his belt. Plus the game is sandwiched between our two matchups against his predecessor Sam Darnold in Carolina so we will be surrounded by that story line for multiple weeks. And while right now, a week 17 matchup against the Jets looks like an easier draw when the Bucs will hopefully be in the thick of clinching or prepping for the playoffs, when a team gets a new QB you just never know what that will look like.

I will always be intrigued to watch rookie QBs face off against Tom Brady to see how they handle being on the same field as the GOAT, much less when he is trying to clinch a playoff spot or divisional championship. Add in JPP and Shaq getting after a rookie QB and that's a matchup I'm tuning in for.

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