Baker Mayfield’s return to Tampa Bay signals Bucs’ focus on continuity, contention

When our FOX Sports NFL staff ranked the league’s top 50 free agents, the Bucs were the only team with three players in the top 20. Retaining them was a daunting task for a team coming off three straight division titles.

But now, less than a day before Monday’s window for free agents to open negotiations with new teams, the Bucs now have all three back under contract for 2024.

The biggest deal came Sunday night, with news that the Bucs are signing quarterback Baker Mayfield to a three-year deal worth $100 million, taking one of the best free-agent passers off the market after a career year in 2023. Mayfield, who turns 29 next month, reset his career highs with 28 touchdown passes and 4,044 yards, leading the Bucs to the divisional round of the playoffs.

This came after the Bucs used their franchise tag on All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield — paying him $17.1 million for one year — and locked up Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans with a two-year, $41 million contract. The Bucs still have important free agents to sign, like linebacker Lavonte David and kicker Chase McLaughlin, but the heavy lifting of their offseason has been done.

Bucs general manager Jason Licht sat next to Evans on Friday afternoon, thrilled about his progress but aware that getting Mayfield back was still a major hurdle to bringing back the leadership of his 2023 team. He gave credit to assistant general manager Mike Greenberg and vice president of football research Jackie Davidson, who have helped him plan for this offseason.

“You have great people working for you in the experts of Mike and Jackie. It’s a puzzle,” Licht said. “We have some constraints — there is the cap and all of those things. We’ve been planning on this for a while. It isn’t something that you wake up and decide to do. It’s the plan that you have. It’s something that, luckily, we have great people working in this organization that are helping us through it.”

Mayfield’s new deal is a huge raise from his 2023 contract, which paid him a $4 million salary that also netted $2.85 million in incentives. Quarterback contracts can get expensive in a hurry, and Mayfield’s deal is more than Seattle’s Geno Smith signed for last year after a breakout 2022 season, but less than the Saints gave Derek Carr.

Mayfield’s 2024 compensation is $30 million, likely a league-minimum $1.2 million salary and the rest in a bonus that can be pro-rated for salary-cap purposes. He has a $30 million salary in 2025, and $10 million is fully guaranteed now, with another $10 million guaranteed against injury. The third year is not guaranteed, so you can think of this as a two-year, $60 million contract that gives Mayfield two seasons to convince the Bucs he’s worth keeping on a $40 million salary in 2026. With creative use of void years, his 2024 salary-cap number could be as low as $7 million.

Baker Mayfield wins NFL on FOX Pod’s comeback player of the year

Mayfield could have tested the market Monday at noon — perhaps only the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins will draw a larger contract, but Mayfield made it clear he wanted to stay in Tampa, valuing the continuity of staying in one place after spending parts of 2022 with the Browns, Panthers and Rams. He spoke of taking less money than possible, hoping his teammates would do the same in hopes of keeping the team’s core intact for another playoff run.

“To get everybody back, there has to be sacrifices made and this team is about winning,” Mayfield said after the team’s loss to the Lions in the division round of the playoffs. “We have a group full of guys that they were all about that. It’s not about individual guys, it’s not about that, and so that’s what has made it special.”

Mayfield and Evans had both expressed hope not only that one of them would return, but the other as well — they connected for 13 touchdowns in their first season together, tying for the NFL lead. They’ll need to adjust to a new offensive coordinator, as former Rams assistant Liam Coen is now in charge after Dave Canales left to become the Panthers’ head coach. There’s still plenty of room for growth in the offense, as the Bucs finished 23rd in total offense and 20th in scoring offense.

Licht’s last priorities before free agency are trying to re-sign David — who has played all 12 of his NFL season in Tampa — and McLaughlin, who had the most accurate kicking season in franchise history last year while playing for $50,000 more than the league minimum. Licht joked at the NFL combine that if he were able to bring all of those back, Tampa should throw another boat parade just for pulling it off.

The Bucs can create additional cap space by restructuring the contract of a player like defensive tackle Vita Vea, or by moving on from receiver Russell Gage, who is due to make $10 million in non-guaranteed salary.

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Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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