Free agency is nearly upon us, and when the new league year arrives the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have its work cut out.
At the top of the list is re-signing both Baker Mayfield and Mike Evans, two key pillars of the offense. Both have indicated that they'd like to return to Tampa Bay with Baker going as far as to essentially demand that Evans comes back if he does.
Actions speak louder than words, though, and the winds of free agency might carry plans in a different direction.
Baker seems like more of a safe bet to return, as it's Evans who fans have been quietly worrying about all season. He put together another historic year -- crossed the 1,000-yard mark for a 10th consecutive time -- but it all happened against the backdrop of the ultimatum he gave the Bucs before Week 1.
No deal was reached then, and Evans now enters free agency without a contract and with the possibility that he leaves very real.
PFF doesn't think Bucs are a potential fit for Mike Evans in free agency
In their list of the Top 150 free agents this offseason, PFF listed Mike Evans at No. 13 but didn't have the Bucs as a potential fit. Instead, the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers were listed as possible landing spots.
The Jets being a landing spot makes a lot of sense, and it's not the first time we've heard Evans linked to New York. What stands out as borderline insane is that the Panthers are listed instead of the Bucs. If there's an NFC South team Evans is probably going to end up with, it feels like Tampa Bay has a head start over everyone else.
PFF's argument is less about loyalty and more about the money Evans could get from the Panthers.
"Carolina is probably the team most likely to throw an absolute bag at Evans to come serve as Bryce Young’s No. 1 wideout and also bring an exceptional veteran leader to a team that needs a culture shift. Evans withstood some dire times in Tampa but kept his head down and eventually got a ring," PFF wrote.
Fair, but still absolutely insane.
Another factor at play here is Dave Canales, who left Tampa Bay to become the head coach in Carolina. It's easy to see that connection and assume it would give the Panthers a leg up on the Bucs, but that's overthinking things.
While Evans never came out and said anything negative about the offense last year, nobody needed to squint hard to see that he wasn't being used right. More than a few times Evans didn't see the bulk of his production until the fourth quarter, oftentimes after it was already too late. He managed to rack up over 1,000 yards but topped out with not much more than that.
Nico Collins, D.J. Moore, and Puka Nakua all finished with more yards than Evans, with Michael Pittman Jr ending up just over 100 yards behind him.
For as elite as Evans is, barely finishing in the Top 10 for receiving yards isn't great, although he did tie Tyreek Hill for the most touchdowns.
The point is, Evans was already being misused by Canales, and the idea of running that back but with an unproven young quarterback isn't exactly appealing. Evans is putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame career and winning another Super Bowl might be a clincher. Simply put, he's not going to do that in Carolina.
Evans is far more likely to leave Tampa Bay for a situation like New York or Kansas City where he can continue his historic 1,000 yard streak and be in the best position to win another ring. Place like Baltimore, Buffalo, and Green Bay make more sense than Carolina, which is also overlooking the very real possibilty that he ends up back with the Bucs -- a place he's said time and time again he'd like to remain.
It's not a sure thing that Evans returns, but it can pretty much be completely counted out that if he leaves it will be for a team like the Panthers.