Bucs begin talks to re-sign Baker Mayfield, will resume at NFL combine

Bucs begin talks to re-sign Baker Mayfield, will resume at NFL combine

TAMPA ― The workouts and interviews with college stars will kick off the annual NFL scouting combine next week in Indianapolis.

But it’s what happens in the downtown bars and steakhouses that will determine the course of the Bucs next season.

That’s where general manager Jason Licht will huddle with the agents for key players such as quarterback Baker Mayfield, wide receiver Mike Evans and/or safety Antoine Winfield Jr.

Although nothing is imminent, the Bucs and Mayfield have had some preliminary talks about a new contract. Licht is expected to meet with Mayfield’s agent, Tom Mills, next week. Both sides have expressed an interest in reaching an agreement for Mayfield to return to Tampa Bay.

Mayfield passed for a career-high 4,044 yards and 28 touchdowns this past season while leading the Bucs to their third straight NFC South title. He led Tampa Bay to win over Philadelphia in the wild-card round and came within a drive in the final minute at Detroit from advancing to the NFC championship game.

While Mayfield reestablished the reputation he built by winning the Heisman Trophy and being the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 draft, he is looking for stability after playing for four teams in less than two years.

The Bucs and head coach Todd Bowles want to build on Mayfield’s success and provide some continuity. After losing offensive coordinator Dave Canales to the Panthers (where he became head coach), Tampa Bay hired Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who worked with Mayfield for five games with the Rams at the end of the 2022 season.

Mayfield would prefer to remain in Tampa Bay, because he believes it gives him the best chance to win. But the Bucs could have some competition if Mayfield makes it to free agency in March.

One team that has been reported as a possible suitor is the Patriots. Many members of their organization ― including director of scouting Eliot Wolf, front office executive Alonzo Highsmith, offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt and quarterbacks coach T.C. McCartney ― once worked for the Browns and like Mayfield.

Of course, Mayfield has said he wants to play for a winner, and the Patriots are in rebuild mode with new head coach Jerod Mayo. New England also owns the No. 3 overall pick in a fertile quarterback draft.

In the end, Mayfield would like to get fair market value after earning slightly more than $6 million with performance bonuses last season.

How much could he fetch in free agency?

The Bucs likely would be willing to give him the equivalent of the franchise player value of $36.3 million but aren’t expected to use that designation on him. In fact, $40 million per year may sound high for Mayfield, but it could fall within the top 15 quarterbacks in terms of salary once other deals are done for veterans.

Winfield would be the leading candidate to receive the franchise player tag if they Bucs utilize it, because it would only count $16.2 million against the salary cap.

Evans’ situation is a little more uncertain. While he would like to remain with the Bucs, he gave them a chance to extend his contract before the start of the 2023 season. When it didn’t happen, all talks ceased and Evans posted 1,255 receiving yards and tied for the NFL lead with 13 touchdowns.

The Bucs have until March 5 at 4 p.m. to decide whether to use their franchise player tag, which doesn’t prohibit still negotiating a long-term deal. The legal negotiating period for free agents runs from March 11 at noon to March 13 at 4 p.m. Players can agree to new deals, but they don’t become official until the start of the new league year March 13 at 4 p.m., when free agency begins.

Here are a few things to watch for during the combine.

Licht and Bowles speak Tuesday

The Bucs GM and head coach have not had media availability since the 2023 season ended, and Bowles has added several new assistant coaches on offense as well as a special teams coordinator.

In addition to providing an update on their attempts to re-sign Mayfield, Evans and Winfield, tackle Tristan Wirfs is entering his final year under contract and set to play under the club option of $18.22 million on a one-year deal. Extending Wirfs may be something the Bucs address before or during the 2024 season.

The Bucs have just over $48 million in cap space, according to Spotrac. They could create more by releasing some veteran players.

Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and cornerback Carlton Davis could be candidates. The Bucs‘ key potential free agents also include inside linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David, kicker Chase McLaughlin, guard Aaron Stinnie, defensive back Dee Delaney, running back Chase Edmonds and defensive lineman William Gholston. A year ago, they released running back Leonard Fournette during the combine.

There’s a Bucs flavor to NFC South

This will be a coming-out party for two new head coaches in the NFC South: Raheem Morris in Atlanta and Canales in Carolina.

Morris was the Bucs’ head coach from 2009-11, and it’s taken years for one of the NFL’s best defensive minds to get another chance to lead a team. The Falcons also are in need of a quarterback, and Morris became tight with Mayfield during their time together with the Rams.

Canales took several Tampa Bay assistants with him to Carolina and enjoyed a meteoric rise from passing game coordinator in Seattle to head coach in less than a calendar year. He has an intimate working knowledge of the Bucs and their personnel, which could be an advantage during free agency.

Three players Bucs will keep a close eye on

1. Michael Penix Jr., QB, Washington: Penix already is among Bruce Arians’ favorite quarterbacks in the draft because of his ability to throw the football downfield. The problem is, he could be gone well before the Bucs pick at No. 26. In a weird way, they have to hope some clubs are scared away by the medical reports, which include having torn two ACLs.

2. Ray Davis, RB, Kentucky: Coen is familiar with the Wildcats running back, having coached him for one season. Davis was very productive, rushing for 1,129 yards and 14 touchdowns while catching 33 passes for 323 yards and seven TDs. He’s got decent size (5-10, 216 pounds), and the Bucs need an RB2 with Edmonds hitting free agency.

3. Tony Franklin, WR, Oregon: New Bucs receivers coach Bryan McClendon only coached Franklin his freshman year with the Ducks. But with Evans’ status up in the air and Chris Godwin in the final year of his contract, it’s time to address the position in a big way. Franklin has great size (6-3, 185) had 81 catches for 1,383 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.

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