Antoine Winfield Jr.'s contract expected to have huge impact on the NFL

The rest of the league will be watching closely to see what happens between Winfield and the Bucs.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints
Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints / Chris Graythen/GettyImages

All eyes are on Mike Evans when it comes to how the rest of the NFL is looking at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ahead of free agency opening next week. Where those eyes should is on Baker Mayfield, as it seems a return for Evans hinges on whether the Bucs can re-sign their star quarterback.

Lost in the noise of rumors about Baker and Evans is perhaps the Buccaneers' best player, and the guy everyone else in the league should be hoping the team can't work out a deal with. Antoine Winfield Jr., the best and most underrated safety in the NFL, is set to hit free agency in a week, but there's zero chance Tampa Bay allows that to happen.

There's a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds but whether or not Winfield remains with the Bucs is not among that. It's not a question of if Winfield is back, it's how big will the deal Tampa Bay gives him be which is something front offices will be paying very close attention to for their own future reference.

Antoine Winfield Jr.'s contract expected to reset market for safeties

Despite not being named to the Pro Bowl and all of the controversy that surrounded his status as one of the league's best safeties, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler is hearing that Winfield's contract is expected to reset the market.

"There's a feeling from people inside the league I've spoken to that Winfield would reset the safety market in a new deal, either with Tampa Bay or as a free agent," Fowler reported. "He was that good last season, finishing with 122 tackles, 6 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, and 3 interceptions."

Derwin James is the highest-paid safety at the moment, but Winfield is expected to surpass his $76 million contract with the Chargers. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Jamal Adams clock in next, with Jessie Bates and Harrison Smith rounding out the top of the list.

James, Fitzpatrick, and Bates are all slated to hit free agency in 2027, so what ends up happening with Winfield's deal will have a massive impact on how those guys and others at the position get paid in a few years.

Winfield is projected to make north of $90 million and he'll have earned every single penny of his deal.

While Baker and Evans are no doubt key pieces of a winning roster, Winfield is absolutely essential. He single-handily either kept the Bucs in games they otherwise shouldn't have been in or outright won them games.

It started right away in Week 1 when he forced a fumble on Kirk Cousins that helped swing momentum back to Tampa Bay's side in a close game. He's made a habit of knocking the ball loose on runners at the goal line too, something he did to Desmond Ridder to keep the Bucs in a game they eventually lost and he did it again in Week 18 to save the team's season.

Winfield might not get the accolades on a national level, but his peers voted him first team All-Pro this year which indicates the right people are paying attention. Jason Licht and the Bucs have been paying attention too, and there seems to be absolutely no way -- short of some disaster -- that Winfield gets away.

If a long-term deal can't be agreed to before Tuesday's deadline, the Bucs are expected to place the franchise tag on Winfield to extend the negotiating window. Even if he gets the tag, he won't be playing on a one-year deal, and the contract he gets from Tampa Bay will the be set a new standard at the position for the rest of the league.

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