Captain of the Ship: Baker Mayfield has earned the Bucs QB job for 2024 and beyond

The Bucs need to let Baker Mayfield captain the ship for at least one more season.
Baker Mayfield Thumbs Up
Baker Mayfield Thumbs Up / Kevin Sabitus/GettyImages

When Tom Brady retired from the NFL last offseason, many in the national media counted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out. Draft pundits penciled the Buccaneers into a top-five draft slot, and experts considered the Bucs to be among the worst in the league.

To an outsider, the uncertainty surrounding the Buccaneers made sense. Tampa Bay finished 8-9 with Tom Brady a season ago and was now searching for a quarterback again. The front office was tasked with navigating nearly $80 million in dead cap, a lingering debt that the team created by restructuring contracts in order to build the roster during the Brady era. The team would also be relying on a first year offensive coordinator in Dave Canales.

Naturally, the general expectation was that the Bucs would struggle in what was expected to be a transition year for the franchise. Those within the organization, however, never wavered in their confidence that this team could compete despite Brady's absence.

"Anybody who feels we've lost Tom -- and lost something -- is going to be in for a rude awakening. A rude awakening. Tom was a great addition for us, but obviously, it's a team sport. Obviously, you need components to be successful. We still have those components,” said Carlton Davis. "We're going to wreck s--t. Like, wreck s--t."

The sentiment rang loud and clear throughout the organization.

Players and coaches alike felt disrespected by the outside narrative that the team would return to the cellars where they resided for most of the 2010s prior to the Brady era. The team lacked zero confidence in itself, and head coach Todd Bowles made it clear that inside the building, they were confident in their ability to win the NFC South and make a playoff run with this core group. Now, they just needed to find their new quarterback, but it would take a certain type of person to take on the challenge of filling Tom Brady's shoes as the face of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Baker Mayfield has earned the Bucs QB job for 2024 and beyond

Enter: Baker Mayfield

Mayfield didn't view this Buccaneers roster the way many football fans and analysts did. He saw a stable organization with recent success that was as focused on winning as he was. He saw a chance to work with a young, hungry offensive coordinator who's scheme fits Mayfield like a glove. He saw the opportunity to throw passes to one of the league's best receiving groups which led to revitalizing his career as a starting quarterback in the NFL.

Baker and the Bucs were a match made in football heaven coming into the 2023 season. Mayfield possesses the mentality of a fiery underdog, the same identity that drives and unites the locker room in Tampa Bay. Both Mayfield and the returning Buccaneers were hell-bent on winning football games and changing the narrative and expectations that surrounded them.

When Mayfield first joined the Buccaneers last offseason, he came to Tampa Bay with the reputation of an embattled journeyman quarterback, who failed to live up to the expectations that came with his status as a first overall draft selection and former Heisman Trophy winner.

After a storybook beginning to his NFL career, leading the Cleveland Browns to their first playoff win in 26 years, things went downhill quickly for Mayfield. His performance slipped as he dealt with adversity ranging from organizational dysfunction to injuries. When the Browns grew impatient with the young quarterback's development, they decided to pursue Deshaun Watson and trade Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers.

After a short, failed stint in Carolina, Mayfield asked for his release and eventually signed with the Los Angeles Rams in December of 2022 where he finished his season and eventually become an unrestricted free agent. Needless to say, Baker Mayfield has taken his lumps over the past few seasons, and he is no stranger to overcoming adversity.

Mayfield has had to fight for very opportunity he has gotten throughout his career, and things were no different in Tampa Bay, as he had to compete with Kyle Trask for the right to be the Bucs’ starting quarterback. While it was ultimately his play on the field that won him the job, his moxie and leadership played a large role in helping Mayfield win over the locker room and front office in Tampa Bay. He was voted a captain by his teammates and quickly became a respected leader within the organization.

The massive chip on Mayfield's shoulder is what made him the perfect candidate to be the face of this Buccaneers team. Disrespected and counted out, but still confident and highly motivated, Mayfield's situation was a perfect encapsulation of the Bucs' organization at the time of his signing, making him a relatable leader that players would love to play for and the fans will find easy to root for.

“He has an eternal chip on his shoulder,” Bucs' General Manager Jason Licht said in an interview with ESPN. “Now he wants to resurrect his career. Everybody was counting him out and saying he sucks.”

In 2023 Baker Mayfield did just that; he resurrected his career with the Buccaneers. He finished the year with 4,044 yards, 28 touchdowns and just ten interceptions. His 64.3% completion percentage is a career high. He also set a career high in passer rating and reached his highest QBR since 2020. Mayfield had several signature moments this season including a historic game at Lambeau Field in December and an impressive showing against the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild card round of the playoffs.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mayfield's season though, was his ability to put his stamp on this entire Bucs team. The entire team assumed the gritty identity of their quarterback en route to an exciting playoff run in a season where nobody believed in them but themselves.

Despite the disappointing end to the season in Detroit, this Bucs team, led by Baker Mayfield, far surpassed expectations in 2023. This isn't to say things were perfect; the Buccaneers' 2023 season was a rollercoaster. The team started 3-1 and had quietly become one of the league's best stories. They faced a rough patch where they lost six out of seven games, and at 4-7, they were on the verge of spiraling out of contention and proving the doubters right. But the team remarkably stuck together through the turmoil and finished the 2023 season with a 9-8 regular season record, and a third consecutive NFC South crown. The team not only finished with a better record than a year prior, but they were also able to pull off a convincing playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild card round.

With the Carolina Panthers deciding to hire the Bucs' impressive young offensive coordinator Dave Canales as their new head coach, there are questions about Mayfield's future in Tampa Bay. There are concerns that a large part of Mayfield's success was due to his natural fit in Canales' system and his growing familiarity with the playbook. With Canales leaving for a division rival, the goal of continuity goes out the window, and it is fair to question whether Mayfield will be as successful as he transitions into yet another new offense.

With a new scheme being implemented and a new play-caller taking the reins of the Bucs' offense, the Bucs may be hesitant to offer Baker Mayfield the large contract he is set to demand after his impressive 2023 season. The franchise tag for a quarterback is projected to cost around $35 million, and so Baker Mayfield will have the leverage, if he chooses, to strong-arm the Bucs in negotiations and cash in on this free-agency opportunity.

If the Bucs refuse to pay Mayfield's price, there will certainly be other suitors this offseason, with teams such as the Atlanta Falcons, Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos, and Minnesota Vikings who may be in the market for a quarterback but will likely miss out on the top quarterback prospects due to their draft position. This year's free agency class is not particularly strong, headlined by Kirk Cousins, Baker Mayfield, and Gardner Minshew. Due to Cousins' age and injury status, a strong argument can be made that Baker Mayfield is the best quarterback available this offseason.

What could Baker Mayfield's next contract with Buccaneers look like?

So, what would an appropriate contract look like for Baker Mayfield?

According to Over the Cap, the price tag to franchise tag a quarterback this offseason is approximately $35 million, so negotiations will center around that number. Geno Smith's contract extension with the Seattle Seahawks last offseason serves as a potential blueprint for what kind of deal Baker Mayfield will earn this offseason. The quarterbacks had similar production and took their teams to the playoffs in their respective career-reviving seasons. Geno Smith was signed to a three year deal worth $105 million, an average of $35 million per year, but with a twist. The Seahawks gave Geno Smith $52 million in year one, about half of his total contract value. This method of frontloading the contract is a win-win for both parties because Smith got a decent chunk of his money up front, and the Seahawks gave themselves an out of the contract, and can now move off of the contract with minimal cap ramifications if they deem necessary. If the Bucs do decide to extend Baker Mayfield, it would be wise to offer a similarly structured contract so the team isn't locked into a bad situation if Mayfield regresses in 2024.

While there are valid concerns around giving an oft-injured quarterback who has a reputation for inconsistency a large contract, the Buccaneers need to offer Baker Mayfield an extension to remain as the Buccaneers quarterback in 2024 and beyond.

It would be borderline malpractice to let Baker walk out the door in free agency. The Bucs have struggled throughout their entire franchise history to find their franchise guy at quarterback, The franchises' two Super Bowl wins were earned with short-term veteran free agency signings at quarterback in Brad Johnson and Tom Brady. The franchise has historically failed to develop a plethora of young quarterbacks such as Doug Williams, Steve Young, Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon, Jameis Winston, and debatably, Kyle Trask. While Baker Mayfield isn't perfect, he put together an impressive performance in Tampa Bay this season, and a snake-bitten franchise like the Buccaneers can't afford to let a solid quarterback walk to chase something more perfect.

To put things into perspective, outside of Tom Brady, Baker Mayfield was the first Bucs' quarterback to lead the team to the postseason since 2007, and the only Bucs' quarterback to win a playoff game since the team's first Super Bowl in 2003. He put up one of the most productive statistical seasons in franchise history, led the team to an NFC South title and a home playoff win, and developed strong chemistry with his teammates along the way.

At just 28 years old, Baker Mayfield has the potential to be a long-term answer in Tampa Bay if he can consistently perform the way he did for the Bucs in 2023, and the Bucs owe it to themselves and to Mayfield to take that chance.

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