5 Rookies the Bucs Must Stop in 2016

NFL Media senior analyst Gil Brandt names 11 rookies who will make an immediate impact on their new team.

The first pass that Carson Wentz throws in an NFL game will likely come against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense. On August 11, the Buccaneers will take on Wentz's Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field to kick off each team's preseason slate. Wentz, who will be battling Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel for the starting job, may not take the game's first snaps but, barring injury, he should be on the field before long.

Of course, that is the preseason, and it won't really matter too much to the Bucs' 2016 fortunes if the number-two overall pick in this year's draft happens to have a big game. On the other hand, if the draft's number-one pick puts up big numbers at Raymond James Stadium on September 25, that could be a problem.

The Los Angeles Rams chose Cal's Jared Goff over Wentz, and they could have their quarterback of the future in the starting lineup by Week Three, when they visit Tampa for the Bucs' 2016 home opener. If so, Goff would become one of the most important rookies Tampa Bay to stop this season. Counting preseason games, the Buccaneers are due to face each of the first five picks in the 2016 draft, seven of the first nine and 17 of the 31 first-round picks overall. Here are the five they most need to contain, listed in chronological order of when the games are played.

1. DT Robert Nkemdiche, Arizona Cardinals, 29th overall pick

The Cardinals ranked fourth in the NFL in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed last year on their way to a 13-3 record and the #2 seed in the NFC playoffs. However, they were only 20th in sacks produced, with 36th. Adding a more robust pass-rush (and getting Tyrann Mathieu back from injury) could make the Cardinals' defense downright scary

That was obviously the number-one task of the offseason for the Arizona brass, which traded a second-round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper to New England to get Chandler Jones, who had 36 sacks in his first four NFL seasons. They then used their first-round pick on Mississippi's Robert Nkemdiche, another talented pass-rusher who fell to the bottom of the round due to off-the-field concerns.

That could prove to be a major overhaul up front for the Cardinals. Jones, who had 12.5 sacks last year and is just entering his prime, is obviously the more proven NFL commodity and is almost certain to make a big impact. Nkemdiche, like every draft pick from #1 on down, has boom or bust potential but was widely regarded as a top-10 pick on talent alone. He's very solidly built at 6-3 and 294 pounds and moves with the quickness of an end. If he's a force right from the start he could team up with Jones to give the Bucs' offensive line a very serious early challenge. As good as Arizona is in the secondary, it could be a long afternoon for Jameis Winston if he is forced to get rid of the ball too quickly.

On the other hand, this game will be played in Week Two, on September 18. Perhaps Nkemdiche will need some time to get adjusted to the NFL and the Buccaneers' blockers will be able to keep him away from the backfield. That could be a critical factor in the outcome of that game in Glendale.

2. QB Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams, 1st overall pick

Tampa Bay could face first-round rookie quarterbacks in consecutive weeks during the season's first month. Jared Goff and the Rams come to town in Week Three, followed by Paxton Lynch (#26 pick overall) and the Denver Broncos in Week Four. On the other hand, the Bucs' defense could be squaring off against Case Keenum and Mark Sanchez on those two afternoons.

Goff was billed as the more "NFL-ready" quarterback in the lead-up to the draft, while Memphis' Lynch lasted until later in the round despite being loaded with size and talent. Goff is the more likely of the two to be an opening-day starter for his team. The last five quarterbacks taken first overall, including the Bucs' Jameis Winston last year, have all been opening-day starters in their rookie campaigns. And while L.A. may be calling Keenum the starter right now after a relatively strong showing last year, he has a career passer rating of 79.8 and the Rams had the league's worst passing attack in 2016.

The Rams traded away a boatload of draft assets to move up to the top of the draft for Goff, an indication that they think they are just a franchise quarterback away from winning. And indeed, they've won either six or seven games in each of the last four seasons while building a strong defense and a good rushing attack. They might be right. If Goff finds his groove early, the Rams will be a tough first home test for the Bucs' new-look defense. On the other hand, if Tampa Bay can force Goff into a few too many "rookie mistakes," that could be their winning edge in Week Three.

3. LB Leonard Floyd, Chicago Bears, 9th overall pick

This will be an interesting challenge for the Buccaneers when the Bears visit Raymond James Stadium on November 13, because theoretically Leonard Floyd could have been in a Tampa Bay uniform for that contest, instead.

The Bucs went into the first round of the draft slated to pick ninth. It seemed obvious then – and has since been confirmed by the team's selections – that a cornerback and a pass-rusher were the top two needs, and Floyd was one of a handful of players considered among the draft's best prospects to fill the latter role. Whether or not he was a good fit for the Buccaneers' defense was another issue, but a moot one because Jason Licht and company wanted to hit that first need first. Chicago traded up two spots to leap the Giants, who might have been interested in Floyd, and the Bucs settled in at 11 and still got their man in Vernon Hargreaves. Licht addressed the pass-rush need the next evening with Noah Spence early in the second round.

That marked the first time in 20 years that the Bears traded up in the first round of the draft, which is an indication of how badly they wanted to land Floyd. Chicago's linebacking corps, for many years the heart of the team, was in dire need of some upgrades and the Bears think the former Georgia star can be a very versatile addition. Most importantly, of course, Floyd will add juice to Chicago's pass-rush, which ranked 22nd last year with 35 sacks. The Bears may employ him much as the Bucs are talking about using Spence, not only rushing him off the edge but also letting him float around the defense and come at the quarterback from different angles.

Unlike the Bucs' meeting with Nkemdiche, this matchup with Floyd and the Bears will be well into the season, giving the rookie plenty of time to adjust. It will be imperative that Tampa Bay's offensive front keeps Floyd and Winston from meeting too often during that Week 10 contest.

4. DE Joey Bosa, San Diego Chargers, 3rd overall pick

Yes, there is a theme developing here. There was a diverse and intriguing group of pass-rushers available in the early rounds of this year's draft, and the Bucs are going to run into a lot of them. They won't have to face San Francisco's DeForest Buckner or Buffalo's Shaq Lawson, but they've got the first defensive player drafted waiting for them late in the season.

The Chargers surprised many pundits by making Bosa the first player off the board after the two expected quarterback picks by Los Angeles and Philadelphia. For many, that surprise quickly gave away to acknowledgment that the pick made quite a bit of sense. Bosa's purported draft stock bounced up and down in the months leading up to Round One, but in the end the Chargers thought he was the best pass-rusher available despite an underwhelming sack total in his last year at Ohio State.

Bosa is a 6-5, 269-pound defender with a versatile skill set and a high-revving motor when he's on the field. The Chargers will move him to outside linebacker in their 3-4 front but his main purpose will be to wreak havoc in the backfield. Once again, we're talking about a defense that needed a boost to its pass-rush – 32 sacks in 2015 to rank 24th – and looks like it got one. And, as with Floyd in Week 10 but to an even greater degree, Bosa will have had plenty of time to get used to the speed of the NFL game before taking on the Buccaneers on Dec. 4. Perhaps the Bucs can hope that he hits the proverbial rookie wall right around then.

5. RB Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys, 4th overall pick

A year ago, the (then-St. Louis) Rams took Georgia running back Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick, bucking the recent trend of that position falling out of favor in the top 10. The Bucs ran into Gurley in St. Louis in Week 14 and contained him relatively well, allowing 48 yards on 21 carries. However, Gurley did score one of his 10 touchdowns in that game and caught two passes for 31 yards as the Rams got the 31-23 victory.

This year, the Cowboys passed on adding a pass-rusher to their defensive front and grabbed Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott at #4 overall, the highest any back had gone since Trent Richardson went #3 overall in 2012. The modified new approach to drafting running backs seems to be to wait until later with the exception of the occasional transcendent talent. That could be Elliott; the Cowboys clearly think so.

For the former Buckeye, it couldn't have been a more serendipitous outcome. He begins his NFL career running behind the offensive line generally considered the NFL's best, and one of the best in recent history. DeMarco Murray had a monster season behind that line in 2014 and struggled away from it in 2015, while the Cowboys still ranked ninth in rushing yards per game (118.1) and fifth in yards per carry (4.63) without him. Darren McFadden did a fine job as the lead back in Dallas last year but Elliott could be as productive as Murray circa 2014.

The Buccaneers head to Dallas in Week 14, for a December 18 matchup that could be absolutely critical if Tampa Bay is in the playoff hunt. Assuming Tony Romo has better luck on the injury front in 2016 and is still upright in mid-December, he and Dez Bryant will be one of the tougher tests the Bucs' defense faces all year. If they can't first slow down Elliott, that task will become exponentially harder. Tampa Bay will face Gurley, Devonta Freeman, Jamaal Charles and Jonathan Stewart earlier in the year, but Elliott might prove to be the most challenging ballcarrier they take on all year.

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