The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face a series of related challenges this fall, as we noted when the team's list of 2011 opponents was finalized in January. Most notably, the Buccaneers' defense will have to contend with a stampede of the NFL's best running backs and the Tampa Bay offense will face a murderer's row of pass-rushers.
Gerald McCoy and company will find themselves up against five of the six leading rushers from last year: Arian Foster, Michael Turner, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson. Meanwhile, Donald Penn will lead the efforts to stop (or at least slow down) four of the league's six top sack artists in 2010: DeMarcus Ware, Clay Matthews, John Abraham and Jason Babin.
All of that was evident in January. Another trend on the Buccaneers' schedule has developed more recently, however. In fact, it came together just a week ago, when the 32 teams convened to conduct the 76th Annual National Football League Player Selection Meeting. Yes, the draft.
Suddenly, Tampa Bay's 2011 schedule looks like a parade of rookie quarterbacks.
There were six quarterbacks taken among the first 36 picks of this year's draft, and the Buccaneers will soon be familiar with most of them. Five of the six teams that made those franchise-altering selections are on Tampa Bay's slate this fall.
It started early on the first evening of the draft. As expected, the Carolina Panthers opened the proceedings with the selection of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton first overall. Not long after, the Tennessee Titans surprised many by grabbing Washington's Jake Locker with the eighth overall pick. Most mock drafts had predicted a late-first-round or early-second-round landing for Locker.
Two picks later, the Jacksonville Jaguars jumped on Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, a passer some figured was in play for the first overall pick. Another two picks was all it took for Florida State's Christian Ponder to join the rush, as the Minnesota Vikings made another unexpected choice at #12 overall.
That ended the QB run in Round One, but just three picks into the second round (#35 overall) the Cincinnati Bengals started it again with TCU's Andy Dalton. The San Francisco 49ers wasted no time snapping up Nevada's Colin Kaepernick, taking him with the very next selection.
Of all those teams – Carolina, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Minnesota, Cincinnati and San Francisco, only Cincinnati is not on the Buccaneers' 2011 schedule. Carolina, of course, is on Tampa Bay's slate twice, which means up to six games this season could pit the Bucs' defense against a rookie starter.
The rookie challenge begins almost immediately, in fact. Tampa Bay plays Ponder and the Vikings in Week Two, their first road trip after a home opener against Detroit (and the still quite young Matthew Stafford at quarterback). The Bucs' second road trip brings up the possibility, too, as the team heads out to San Francisco in Week Five, where Kaepernick may be waiting.
After that, it's back to business as usual for awhile, with multiple matchups against such old friends as Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Schaub. After that kind of gauntlet in the middle of the season, the Bucs may actually look forward to their November/December home stretch. Beginning just after Thanksgiving, the Buccaneers will finish the schedule with four potential rookie-QB matchups in their last six games. That's twice against Newton and the Panthers (Weeks 13 and 16) plus once each against Locker and the Titans (Week 12) and Gabbert and the Jaguars (Week 14).
The Buccaneers actually face two other teams this fall that drafted quarterbacks last week, but it would be a stretch to expect either of them to be starting. Chicago picked up Idaho's Nathan Enderle in Round Five but it's unlikely Jay Cutler's job is in jeopardy. Of course, if Cutler suffers an injury, the Bears' backup quarterback situation was somewhat notorious at the end of 2010, so Enderle's appearance in Week Seven isn't a complete impossibility. Also in the fifth round, the Houston Texans drafted North Carolina's Taylor Yates but Schaub is sure to face the Buccaneers in Week 10, again barring injury.
On the other hand, while it is of far less importance, the Buccaneers are scheduled to face two other teams that just drafted quarterbacks during the preseason. The New England Patriots added Arkansas' Ryan Mallett in the third round and the Kansas City Chiefs selected Iowa's Ricky Stanzi in the fifth round. While Tom Brady and Matt Cassel have no job-security fears, Mallett and Stanzi should see plenty of preseason action. The Bucs open their preseason slate at Kansas City and then welcome the Patriots to town in Week Two.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the first six rookie quarterbacks mentioned above will be starting during the regular season, either. Still, considering the depth charts to which they were added, it's a good bet that some or even most of them will be leading their teams into action against Tampa Bay.
In Charlotte, for instance, Cam Newton has to be considered the favorite to win the opening-day job. Carolina's 2010 quarterbacks – Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore, Brian St. Pierre and Tony Pike – combined to produce a dismal 57.0 passer rating and just nine touchdown passes, both league-worst marks. Clausen was the Panthers' first overall pick in 2010, but that was in the second round and his rookie-year performance certainly didn't lock down the job for 2011. Keep in mind that a quarterback has gone first overall in 11 of the last 14 drafts (including 2011), and while only four of those previous 10 were starters on opening day as a rookie, seven of the 10 had taken over by Week 10. The Buccaneers don't face the Panthers until Week 13. Barring a Clausen explosion, Newton seems almost certain to be at work by the time Carolina visits in December.
Tennessee drafted Locker into a bleak quarterback situation as well. The Titans have made it clear that Vince Young, last year's opening-day quarterback, will not be back in 2011, and seasoned veteran Kerry Collins is due to become a free agent. Last year's sixth-round pick, Florida Atlantic's Rusty Smith, got one start late in the year but the results weren't good. New Head Coach Mike Munchak may want to let Locker learn the ropes for awhile before taking over as starter, but the Bucs should see a lot of the former Husky in the preseason and there is a good chance he'll be under center by Week 12.
Gabbert seems like the least likely of the six to be at the helm when the Buccaneers see the Jaguars in 2011. Jacksonville has the most stable existing quarterback situation of the six teams in question, with David Garrard having started all but two games over the last three years. Garrard missed two contests due to injury last year but in his 14 starts led the Jaguars to an 8-6 record and compiled a strong 90.8 passer rating. Garrard also has the support of his teammates, as running back Maurice Jones-Drew has made clear since the drafting of Gabbert. On the other hand, the Bucs won't see the Jaguars until December 11, and the Gabbert era could be hastened if Jacksonville falls out of the playoff hunt.
Ponder's situation is simpler to call: Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier has already stated publicly that he would like his rookie QB to start Week One, comparing the FSU product to Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. On the other hand, this is the one Buc-vs.-rookie matchup that could be most affected by the labor uncertainty. If the NFL ends up with an abbreviated preseason, that could make it more difficult for the Vikings to go with Ponder on Day One, and the Tampa Bay-Minnesota game is scheduled for Week Two.
The two teams that addressed the quarterback position in the second round could definitely be looking for an instant new starter, though there is also the potential of an established veteran being in place. The Cincinnati-Carson Palmer situation won't impact the Bucs' schedule in 2010 (unless Palmer goes to another team on Tampa Bay's slate) but the team does play in San Francisco in Week Five.
The 49ers had serious quarterback woes in 2010, and 2005 first-overall pick Alex Smith was a part of them. However, even though Smith will become a free agent soon, new Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has expressed a desire to bring him back and take another shot at making it work. It would seem clear that Kaepernick is the long-term answer in San Fran, but if Smith does return it's quite possible he'll get most of 2011 to prove he belongs.
Of course, the implied point here is that the Buccaneers would want to face as many rookie quarterbacks as possible. Should they actually feel that way?
It certainly didn't hurt in 2002, when Tampa Bay got a shot at such immortal newcomers as Joey Harrington, Henry Burris and Randy Fasani (not to mention inexperienced non-rookies Chris Redman and Akili Smith) on the way to the Super Bowl. Of course, that team featured a fierce pass rush, which would seem like the number-one problem for a rookie starter, who doesn't need anything that will limit his decision-making time. Perhaps the time that Cam Newton has to get comfortable before two Buc-Panther games in December will also give Tampa Bay's pass rush with newcomers Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers time to gel.
Last year, the Buccaneers got an extended look at rookie quarterbacks in four games – versus Carolina twice (Jimmy Clausen), St. Louis (Sam Bradford) and Arizona (Max Hall) – and also faced two very inexperienced non-rookies in Detroit's Drew Stanton and Seattle's Charlie Whitehurst. Counting the first Carolina game, which Clausen did not start, the Bucs were 5-1 in those outings, losing only to Detroit.
Since 1989, there have been 34 rookies who have emerged as their team's primary starter at quarterback (started at least eight games). Of those 34 seasons, only nine resulted in winning records. However, eight of the last 16 players on that list have helped their teams to winning records. In addition, it's important to note what sort of rookie quarterback we're considering. The 2006 Buccaneers gave the majority of their quarterback starts to a rookie by necessity and finished 4-12, but Bruce Gradkowski was a sixth-round pick who had not been expected to be in that position. The 2008 Atlanta Falcons started a rookie at quarterback for all 16 games and surprised everyone with an 11-5 record. That rookie was first-rounder Matt Ryan, the third overall pick.
In fact, the results of the last three first rounds before 2011 have to give the four teams that jumped on QBs in the first 12 picks this year great confidence. Seven quarterbacks were taken with first-round picks from 2008-10 – Ryan and Joe Flacco (2008); Stafford, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman (2009); Bradford and Tim Tebow (2010) – and six of the seven started at least half of their teams' games as a rookie. Flacco's Ravens matched Ryan's Falcons by winning 11 games in 2008. Sanchez's Jets won nine games in 2009 and made it to the AFC Championship Game. Bradford's Rams didn't quite reach .500 in 2010 but tied for the best record in the NFC West at 7-9.
Stafford's Lions struggled to a 2-14 mark in 2009 but both of their wins did come during the rookie's 10 starts as he missed significant time due to injury. Freeman's Buccaneers were just 3-13 in 2009, but they were 0-7 before he took over and 3-6 afterward.
Theoretically, facing a rookie quarterback should give an NFL defense certain added advantages, and to be sure many such games go badly for the young passer. However, given recent NFL history, the Buccaneers should not be convinced that a sudden surge of rookie passers on their schedule will make things any easier in 2011.