The NFL dropped its 2017 regular-season schedule on Thursday, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now know they'll be starting in Miami, finishing at home against the Saints and getting both reigning Super Bowl teams in prime time in between.
Take a look at our 2017 opponents in order of our schedule.
The Buccaneers also know that, with Chicago's visit to Raymond James Stadium in Week Two, they'll have their first opportunity to play against quarterback Mike Glennon. The former third-round pick out of North Carolina State spent his first four seasons in Tampa, the last two backing up 2015 first-round selection Jameis Winston. In 2013-14, Glennon started 18 games for the Buccaneers and recorded an 84.6 passer rating and a 30/15 TD/INT ratio, and that experienced helped him land a starting gig with the Bears via free agency.
As always, the schedule was released before the NFL Draft; in about a week, we'll have a good idea of some of the league newcomers Tampa Bay will have to take on this fall. However, there are already a handful of players who, like Glennon, are likely to face the Buccaneers for the first time in their careers. That begins right away with a major backfield challenge in Week One.
1. RB Jay Ajayi at Miami
Week 1, Sept. 10
The Dolphins drafted Ajayi out of Boise State in the fifth round in 2015 but didn't put him too much use as a rookie. He missed about half the season with broken ribs and logged only 49 carries and seven receptions as the majority of the work in the backfield went to a very capable Lamar Miller. After the 2015 season, Miller left for Houston via free agency but the Dolphins clearly weren't ready to hand the #1 job to Ajayi. They signed Isaiah Pead in March, drafted Alabama's Kenyan Drake in the third round and even brought in former Texan Arian Foster right before training camp. Foster was bumped to the top spot on the depth chart as the season began and an unhappy Ajayi was deactivated for the season opener in Seattle. Through the first month of the 2016 season, Ajayi had 18 carries, Foster 16, Drake 13 and Pead eight.
In Week Six, Ajayi finally got his chance to carry the load, rushing 25 times for 204 yards. A week later, he went for 214 on 28 totes, becoming the fourth player in NFL history to notch consecutive 200-yard games. He had another 200-yard game in Week 16 and finished with 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns on 260 carries, with an average of 4.9 yards per rush. From that Week Six contest against Pittsburgh through the end of the season, Ajayi was the NFL's leading rusher.
There likely won't be any depth-chart hijinks in 2017. Ajayi has clearly nailed down the Dolphins' starting job, and in the season opener he'll go against the NFL's 22nd-ranked run defense. The Buccaneers allowed 117.2 ground yards per game last year and 4.4 yards per carry. The team has since added productive defensive tackle Chris Baker to play alongside Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, so the team may be more stout in the middle in 2017. Still, the 6-0, 230-pound Ajayi represents a formidable challenge. He's both strong and quick, with a burst to the hole and another gear if he breaks through. He's also a capable pass-catcher. The Buccaneers' defense will face two of the NFL's best young runners in the first two weeks of the season in Ajayi and Chicago's Jordan Howard, coincidentally also a fifth-round draft pick.
2. CB Ronald Darby at Buffalo
Week 7, Oct. 22
Darby did not have a particularly good sophomore campaign in Buffalo, even getting benched briefly last November. He did not pick off a pass after swiping two as a rookie and he saw his passes defensed total fall to 12 from 21 the year before. Still, he was good enough as a rookie to finish second in the voting for the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year award behind Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters. The Bills, who just lost cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the Patriots in free agency, likely view Darby as their rock in an otherwise young and unproven corps of cornerbacks for 2017.
Darby will be getting new life, too, in a more zone-oriented defense brought in by new Head Coach Sean McDermott, who replaces the aggressive Ryan brothers. Given his status as the most experienced corner on the team – particularly if the Bills use a high draft pick to dip into this year's deep crop at the position – it's possible that Darby will be asked to shadow the opposing team's top receiver on occasion. Of course, in the case of the Buccaneers, that might be a difficult call between Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. While Evans will surely remain Jameis Winston's top target, the big-play threat of Jackson might be considered a tougher challenge by some defensive coordinators.
3. DE Leonard Williams vs. N.Y. Jets
Week 10, Nov. 12
The Jets have a very talented defensive line featuring multiple former first-round picks, but Williams, the sixth overall selection in 2015, may be the biggest challenge for opposing teams. Even picked that high, the former USC standout was considered a steal; many mock drafts had Williams coming off the board third after the expected quarterback duo of Winston and Marcus Mariota. New York has certainly not regretted pulling the trigger on Williams when he fell into their draft slot.
Williams stepped right into the starting lineup as a rookie and produced 63 tackles and three sacks. Last year, he upped his sack total to seven and got his first Pro Bowl invite. The Jets have already discovered that they can play the 6-5, 300-pound defender all over their 3-4 front, whether it's defensive end, nose tackle or even outside linebacker. By season's end, he was voted team MVP by his peers and heading into his third season he has vowed to become more of a team leader. There's a very real chance that Williams is on the verge of emerging into a full-blown superstar.
That will obviously be a serious challenge for the Buccaneers' offensive line, the exact shape of which is still not determined. Williams will probably spend a lot of his time rushing against the three interior linemen, and Tampa Bay's coaching staff plans to experiment with different lineups for those spots this spring and summer. The holdover group would be Ali Marpet at right guard, Kevin Pamphile at left guard and Joe Hawley at center, but the versatility of Marpet and Pamphile has given the team some other options. J.R. Sweezy will obviously be fighting for a guard spot and the Bucs think Marpet may have a big future at center. Whatever the interior lineup proves to be, they won't face many stiffer challenges in 2017 than the Jets' Williams.
4. RB/WR Ty Montgomery at Green Bay
Week 13, Dec. 3
If nothing changes on the Packers' depth chart, the team's starting running back is currently wearing jersey #88. Clearly, that's an unusual situation.
When injuries decimated Green Bay's backfield last season, the team took an interesting approach to the problem, giving nominal wide receiver Ty Montgomery a handful of carries. In some games, it turned into more than a handful; against Chicago in Week 15 Montgomery ran 16 times for 162 yards. He finished the season with 457 yards on 77 carries, averaging just under six yards per tote. And, while he might have had some limitations as a receiver, he was obviously a good pass-catcher for a running back. Green Bay may very well dip into this year's extremely deep group of running back draft prospects, particularly after the departure of Eddie Lacy, but it seems likely they will still keep the versatile Montgomery involved in the ground game.
It probably doesn't help the Buccaneers that they're headed to Lambeau Field so late in the season, and not because of the possible freezing temperatures. By then, two-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers should have all his weapons in Green Bay's offense well-defined, just as he did last year when he led the Packers on a dominant second-half run.
The Buccaneers have not yet faced Montgomery, who was a third-round pick out of Stanford in 2015. In fact, they've rarely faced a player in a role like the one Montgomery found himself in last year. His versatility may prove especially challenging for the Buccaneers' linebackers and safeties, who will first need to diagnose if he is acting like a running back or a receiver on any given play.