What if the Bucs don’t re-sign Baker Mayfield?

NFL free agency is not usually the chaotic free-for-all it is often made out to be. Teams will usually re-sign the guys they want to bring back. The Buccaneers are no different as they look to keep quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Make no mistake—the Bucs do have the upper hand in signing Mayfield to a contract. He had one of his best seasons as a pro in red and pewter, and the Bucs’ faith in signing Mayfield after an ignominious exit from Cleveland and a disastrous 2022 season should buy them considerable good will.

That doesn’t mean the chance that Mayfield will sign elsewhere is zero, so the Bucs will need to have contingencies in place should Mayfield move on from Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay’s most obvious obstacle to retaining the former first-overall pick is money. Spotrac estimates Mayfield’s market value at $27.1 million per year. While the Bucs are in far better cap shape this year than last, coming into this offseason with $43.9 million, they also have other pending free agents to consider, including All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield Jr., linebacker Lavonte David and wide receiver Mike Evans.

The news of Evans returning on a new two-year extension would seem to improve the chances of Mayfield returning to Tampa Bay on a new deal of his own, but it’s still not a given until pen hits paper.

Mayfield’s other suitors have hardly been quiet in expressing their interest. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah reported from the NFL Combine that the New England Patriots are expected to make a push for Mayfield’s services. The Atlanta Falcons were also mentioned as a potential suitor by NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.

If one of these teams manage to lure Mayfield out of Tampa Bay, the Bucs do have options, even if they’re somewhat limited.

Let’s take a look at them:

Draft Prospects

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

While the draft would hold the best possible long-term options, Tampa Bay’s 26th overall pick is likely too far for the Bucs to move up for one of the top quarterback prospects like Caleb Williams, Drake Maye or Jayden Daniels.

Instead, the Bucs would have to target the likes of Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr. The best fit is likely Penix, who is from the Tampa Bay area and is possibly the best pure pocket passer in the class. Between Tom Brady and Mayfield, the Bucs offense over the past four seasons has operated largely from the pocket with sporadic running from the quarterback position.

Penix is a better athlete than he often gets credit for being, but his biggest strengths are his ability to push the ball downfield and avoid sacks. With the Bucs’ playmakers at receiver, Penix could practically replicate the explosive passing offense he helmed at Washington. He already has the Bruce Arians stamp of approval.

Nix offers more athleticism and down-to-down accuracy, but he does not have Penix’s arm or sheer aggressiveness. He should be able to run an NFL offense sooner than later so Nix would hardly be an unworthy consolation prize.

Trade Targets

Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Even if Tampa Bay has quarterback options targeted in the draft, the Bucs would have to explore veteran options in free agency and the trade market to insure their ability to field a functional offense in 2024. There are few potential long-term starters available, and those that are only really available via trade.

The top option is Chicago QB Justin Fields. He has not developed much as a passer in the NFL, but Fields is one of the most electric runners in the league. Fields’ next stop should show whether or not he can develop into a true NFL passer, and Tampa Bay has the offensive infrastructure to maximize his potential.

The other trade option would be Washington QB Sam Howell. Though Howell struggled mightily last season, leading the league with 21 interceptions and 65 sacks, he has a similar profile to Baker Mayfield. He is aggressive and capable of mind-boggling throws. His mistake-laden 2023 should make him a relatively cheap bridge option.

Free Agents

Syndication: The Tennessean
Syndication: The Tennessean

If the Bucs opt for the free agent market, their best options are former Titans QB Ryan Tannehill, journeyman Jacoby Brissett and 2023 Comeback Player of the Year Joe Flacco. Tannehill is fully capable of average NFL quarterback play and might be a fit for new Bucs offensive coordinator Liam Coen’s system.

Brissett is reliable and efficient, averaging 6.7 yards per attempt and completing 64% of his passes over the last three seasons. Flacco was a revelation for Cleveland down the stretch last season, averaging 323 yards per game and throwing 13 touchdowns in five games.

None of these three are viable long-term starters. Paired with a rookie, they each could keep the Bucs offense afloat while the rookie gets his feet wet in the NFL.

The Bottom Line

Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

These contingencies are unlikely to be necessary, but while they can hope for the best, the Bucs must also prepare for the worst-case scenarios.

Mayfield should be a Buccaneer in 2024 and beyond, and re-signing Evans obviously makes that far more likely, but turning over every other stone just to be safe is a process Tampa Bay must go through, just in case.

Story originally appeared on Buccaneers Wire