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He may not be elite, but Baker Mayfield is the right QB for these Bucs

TAMPA — So here is what a $50 million guaranteed contract buys you in today’s NFL:

A quarterback with six years of pro experience, two playoff appearances, a 40-46 record as a starter and a touchdown passing percentage slightly better than Jared Goff and a little bit worse than Matthew Stafford.

Also, it buys you hope.

In the end, that might be the most important commodity in this deal. By agreeing to terms with Baker Mayfield on Sunday the Bucs kept themselves relevant in a league where playoff contenders rise and fall depending on who is lined up directly behind the center.

Mayfield is not an elite quarterback, as Mike Evans generously referred to him last week. Not if you consider elite to be Hall of Fame caliber. But Mayfield is as good as Nick Foles or Joe Flacco. Or, for that matter, Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer. And they all won Super Bowls in the past 25 years. Yes, it helps to have a dominant defense, but the precedent does exist.

And the Bucs pulled this off without risking their future. They didn’t trade a bunch of draft picks the way the Broncos did in their ill-fated acquisition of Russell Wilson. They didn’t guarantee Mayfield gobs of money and invite perpetual salary cap issues the way the Browns did with Deshaun Watson. They didn’t waste a high draft pick the way the Bears did with Justin Fields and, potentially, Carolina did with Bryce Young.

Instead, the Bucs bought themselves a chance to repeat as NFC South champions with a known commodity. A player popular with teammates and fans. And they are only committed for two seasons, with a third possible if they choose.

In veteran quarterback terms, that’s practically a bargain.

Mayfield, who turns 29 next month, will get $40 million guaranteed when he signs the contract, and another $10 million guaranteed in March of 2025 (assuming he does not have a catastrophic injury in 2024). If he ends up playing both seasons, he will have made $60 million total. If the Bucs bring him back in 2026, his salary will increase to $40 million, for a total of $100 million across three seasons.

So let’s compare that to a pair of NFC South rivals, who have also gone quarterback shopping on the free agent market.

The Saints gave Derek Carr a 4-year, $150 million deal last year that guaranteed $60 million at signing. It includes another $10 million guaranteed this month. So that contract is a little bit richer and a little longer for a QB who has been in the league 10 years, has one playoff appearance, no postseason wins and will soon turn 33. The Bucs are better off with Mayfield.

The Falcons just agreed to terms Monday with Kirk Cousins on a four-year, $180 million deal with $100 million guaranteed. That’s double what the Bucs guaranteed Mayfield with a substantially higher cap hit. That’s for a quarterback with 12 years in the league, a 1-3 postseason record, coming off an Achilles injury and who will turn 36 in training camp. Cousins may have a spiffier reputation league-wide, but the contract makes Mayfield a better value.

None of this means the Bucs will be better than the Saints or Falcons in 2024, particularly since they are stuck with another first-place schedule.

But it does mean Tampa Bay will not go into the season with a completely unproven quarterback (if Kyle Trask was the alternative) and it does mean the Bucs did not gamble away draft picks or risk salary cap prison by overpaying once free agency became official this week.

The Bucs are attempting to do something that is almost impossible in the parity-driven NFL. They are transitioning from a team that won a Super Bowl with a 40-something quarterback and a bloated salary cap into a team with a new coach, a new offense and a new quarterback without going through a complete rebuild.

In the two seasons since winning the Super Bowl, the Rams are 15-19. Since Tom Brady left New England, the Patriots are 29-38 without a postseason victory.

The Bucs, on the other hand, are 30-21 since winning the Super Bowl and they nearly reached the NFC Championship Game last season without Brady.

Bringing Mayfield back does not guarantee the Bucs will win a fourth consecutive division title or reach the postseason for the fifth season in a row or even stave off the possibility of an eventual teardown and rebuild.

But here’s what it does:

It offers hope, once again.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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