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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2023 Schedule Point-Counterpoint: Top Rookie Opponent 

On Tuesday, Senior Writer/Editor Scott Smith and I debated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2023 schedule, discussing our take of the most anticipated clash come fall. Now we're going to take a look at headliner rookies donning the 2023 slate

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There are many intriguing marquee matchups within the Buccaneers' 2023 itinerary, and among them are several rookie names that have already begun to monopolize headlines. The Bucs will face the defending NFC Champion, Philadelphia Eagles in Week Three and their Georgia first-round picks, Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith. Both are expected to fortify the Eagles' front, a unit that spearheaded their run to Super Bowl LVII. 

Tampa Bay will face several young, unproven quarterbacks among the compilation of opponents, including Panthers' signal-caller Bryce Young, twice. He was the most heralded and pro-ready quarterback of the 2023 class and Young will strive to leave a mark between the white lines during his rookie campaign. In addition, the Bucs will face first-year quarterback C.J. Stroud in Week Nine and Anthony Richardson in Week 12. 

In a prime-time spotlight, the Bucs will travel to Buffalo in Week Eight and will battle one of the NFL's premier quarterbacks in Josh Allen and his new weapon, Dalton Kincaid. The Utah product was deemed one of the best pure pass-catchers in the 2023 class, not just at tight end. He will give Allen a large target over the middle of the field to exploit zone coverage. Twice on the schedule, the Bucs will face the Falcons' new elusive back, Bijan Robinson. The inside-outside runner is electric with the ball in his hands and can stack moves, adding to his unpredictability. There were question marks regarding the Falcons selecting a running back in the top-10 given the wear and tear of the position, but time will tell. Robinson certainly has exceptional traits. 

Today, Scott and I will debate which rookie is worthy of "top talent" status on the 2023 schedule. In essence, who can potentially be a game-wrecker in their first year? 

This is the fourth in our week-long series of schedule-related debates. Here is the run-down for the whole series:

Friday, May 12: What one thing would you most like to thank the NFL schedule makers for this year?

Monday, May 15 What is the toughest stretch of games on this year's schedule?

Tuesday, May 16 What is your most anticipated game on the Bucs' 2023 schedule?

Wednesday, May 17: Who is the top rookie the Buccaneers will face on their 2022 schedule

Thursday, May 18: What is one thing you would change about the Bucs' schedule if you had the power?

Scott and I are not going to duplicate answers, so the order of our debate is critical. It is once again Scott's turn to go first. 

Scott Smith: RB Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons

There are tons of good choices to sift through here. For one thing, all five of the teams that spent a high pick on a quarterback in last month's draft, including three in the first four picks, are on the Buccaneers' schedule. I'm convinced Carolina's Bryce Young and Houston's C.J. Stroud will be starting right from the start and there's a better than even chance that Indianapolis' Anthony Richardson will be under center by the time the Bucs visit in Week 12.

The Texans actually have two players I considered for this pick, as they traded up to get edge rusher Will Anderson with the third pick. He should be an impact player early in his career. I considered Jalen Carter with the Eagles, as well, but that's just three games into his career and hopefully he won't have everything worked out by then.

In the end I didn't go with any of those quarterbacks because rookie passers generally aren't Day One stars. Am I thrilled that Young is in the NFC South now? I am not, but there are some other quarterbacks on the schedule who concern me more this year.

However, one position at which rookies quite often make a huge impact is at running back. Heck, Tyler Allgeier was a fifth-round pick by the Falcons last year and he cracked 1,000 rushing yards. Now he's probably number two on the backfield depth chart because Atlanta, which ran the ball on a higher percentage of plays than every team but Chicago last year, used the eighth-overall pick on Texas star Bijan Robinson.

Robinson is widely regarded as the best running back prospect to enter the league since Saquon Barkley was drafted second overall in 2018, and Barkley ran for 1,307 yards and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Wait, there's more. Barkley also led all NFL players, not just rookies, with 2,028 yards from scrimmage that season because he was a fantastic weapon in the passing game. He caught 91 (!) passes for 721 yards and scored a total of 15 touchdowns.

You know who else is a great pass-catching back? Bijan Robinson. There is already talk that the Falcons will find a way to use him as a slot receiver in addition to a running back. I could easily see him putting up 1,500 yards from scrimmage or more.

Arthur Smith's Falcons were really the most run-heavy team in the league because the Bears' numbers were affected by a quarterback who averaged more than 10 carries per game, many of which began as passing plays before he took off. Smith has his team run under any circumstances – early, late, down 10, up 10, first down, third down. Now, that run-heavy game plan can possibly be tweaked a little, replacing some of those runs with passes to Robinson.

Oh, and the Bucs play the Falcons twice. They're going to see a whole lot of Bijan Robinson in 2023.

Brianna Dix: Edge Will Anderson Jr., Houston Texans

There were choices I could have gone with and although I almost named Dalton Kincaid as my all-star, I am going to go with Will Anderson Jr. There were mocks that had Will Anderson Jr. going first overall at one point. With both an explosive first-step as a pass rusher and dynamic ability as a run defender, Anderson is a player that the Texans can build their program around, or seemingly so (the man has not played a down of pro football yet). 

Anderson became the first player in Alabama history named a unanimous All-American twice. There is a learning curve for every player as they make the leap from college to the pros but pass rushers traditionally perform well in their first year, just look at what Micah Parsons did for Dallas in 2021 or the impact Aidan Hutchinson had for the Lions in 2022. In his first season as a pro, Parsons was named a first-team All-Pro, was the unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year and was voted into the Pro Bowl. He set the Cowboys' franchise rookie record in sacks with 13.0 and became the focal point of blitz and stunt packages in Dan Quinn's 4-3 base, hybrid sub-package system. Hutchinson, the Lions' prized possession, was named the 2022 NFL Rookie of the Year. He led all rookies with 9.5 sacks last season and became the first rookie since 1982, when the individual sack became an official statistic, with at least nine sacks and three interceptions.

Will Anderson Jr. could be the next player in that elite mold. The Texans know how to develop defensive linemen, most notably J.J. Watt. By the time the Buccaneers face the Texans in Week Nine, Anderson will have had time to work through the adjustment period and refine his pass rush arsenal. He became a well-rounded defender in Nick Saban's scheme and since being drafted third overall, Anderson has transitioned from linebacker to defensive end for Houston.

"Defense wins championships" and "the battle is won in the trenches" are phrases that have become synonymously linked to the NFL over the years. Well, I am going to combine both of the coined phrases for my prediction in selecting, Will Anderson Jr. With tantalizing traits, I see him having an immediate impact for the Texans.

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