NFL offseason power rankings: No. 20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers revived Baker Mayfield’s career

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NFL offseason power rankings: No. 20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers revived Baker Mayfield's career

Baker Mayfield’s NFL career was circling the drain, and he was just 27 years old.

During the 2022 offseason, the Cleveland Browns paid $10.5 million of Mayfield’s $15.35 million salary just to be rid of him and facilitate a trade to the Carolina Panthers. He was benched twice by a bad Panthers team and asked for his release. The injury-bombarded Los Angeles Rams added him, and while Mayfield had a few good moments there, there was not much of a market for him as a free agent last offseason. He signed for just one year and $4 million with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Mediocre NFL backups can make twice that. Mayfield wanted one last shot to start and the desperate Bucs, trying to get their salary cap in order after Tom Brady’s retirement, gave him that chance.

In almost every other case that’s the path of a quarterback who is about to become a career backup at best, and at worst completely fade from NFL consciousness. But Mayfield went from that one-year deal last year — to put it in perspective, Sam Darnold got a one-year, $10 million deal this offseason and Jacoby Brissett signed for $8 million over one year — to a three-year, $100 million deal with $50 million guaranteed.

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Mayfield and the Buccaneers had a pretty good season, and it was out of nowhere.

The Buccaneers were expected to struggle as they transitioned from the Brady era and had Brady’s dead cap hit to contend with, but they went 9-8, won the NFC South and then beat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-9 in the wild-card round. Mayfield threw for 4,044 yards and 30 touchdowns. He probably deserved more votes for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award that went to Joe Flacco, but nobody seems to know what the criteria for that award is. It was all a fun surprise for the Buccaneers, who came closer to eliminating the Detroit Lions from the playoffs than you remember. The Buccaneers and Lions were tied going into the fourth quarter of a divisional round game before Detroit pulled away. That speaks to how well Tampa Bay was playing by the end of last season.

It’s just hard to know how much of that is repeatable. And the Buccaneers can’t depend on the NFC South being terrible forever.

The loss of coordinators over an offseason is often underrated, and the Buccaneers had a pretty big departure in offensive coordinator Dave Canales. Canales was such a big part of Mayfield’s turnaround that the Panthers hired him to be their next head coach. We’ll see what effect that has on Mayfield and the offense as a whole. Maybe Mayfield is the next Geno Smith, a player who has a wonderful resurgence and signs a big contract only to regress a year later.

A lot of the same cast returns to defend their division title. As of mid-May 79.5% of players on the Buccaneers’ roster were also on the roster or practice squad in 2023, which was the second highest mark in the NFL, according to Over The Cap. Star receiver Mike Evans is still compiling his Hall of Fame resume and will do so on a new two-year, $41 million extension. Receiver Chris Godwin and running back Rachaad White are productive players. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was retained (at a costly $84.1 million over four years, making him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history) and while the defense wasn’t great, it did a good job keeping opponents out of the end zone. Todd Bowles is just .500 in two seasons as Tampa Bay’s head coach after taking over for Bruce Arians, but he does have two division titles.

The Buccaneers were pleased enough with the progress made in 2023 that they decided to keep the roster mostly the same, including Mayfield. Maybe they can carry over the good vibes they had by the end of last season.

The Buccaneers focused on retaining quarterback Baker Mayfield, receiver Mike Evans and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and brought all three back. A few veterans were let go, like edge rusher Shaq Barrett and linebacker Devin White. The Buccaneers struggled in pass defense and traded cornerback Carlton Davis III to the Detroit Lions without doing much to replace him. However, most of Tampa Bay’s roster from last season returns. Perhaps safety addition Jordan Whitehead can help the secondary and Tampa Bay’s $3 million gamble on pass rusher Randy Gregory will work out. The draft was highlighted by guard Graham Barton in the first round, which wasn’t a sexy pick but fills a need.

Grade: C+

The good news for Baker Mayfield is Liam Coen’s offense won’t be that much different than Dave Canales’ offense last season. Coen was hired at Tampa Bay to replace Canales as offensive coordinator. Both have ties to Shane Waldron, who is offensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears after spending the last three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.

“Dave [Canales] was with Shane Waldron in Seattle, so there are a lot of similarities there,” Coen said. “I don’t expect an overly difficult learning curve, but obviously, we’ll want to be able to put our stamp on things and be able to do things our way, as well.”

Coen is, like Mayfield, trying to rewrite his NFL story. Coen left the University of Kentucky for the 2022 season to be the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator. After the Rams went 5-12 for Sean McVay’s only losing season as an NFL head coach, Coen returned to Kentucky. That short and unsuccessful stint with the Rams was Coen’s only season as an NFL offensive coordinator. It did include four games working with Mayfield, who was plucked off waivers after he was cut by the Panthers.

Coen will be reminded that Mayfield is a little too reckless at times with the ball, but that’s part of his nature. He’s comfortable taking chances downfield, which works well with Mike Evans. Mayfield finished last season on a hot streak, which led to the big extension. Maybe Mayfield’s improvement was due to his comfort level with the offense and his new teammates, and now the offense will change to some extent. Mayfield isn’t a sure thing to replicate his 2023 success, but a lot of that could depend on how quickly he meshes with Coen.

The Buccaneers have won three division titles in a row, but the odds favor the NFC South having a new champion. The Buccaneers are +300 to win the division at BetMGM, far behind the Atlanta Falcons at -120. The Buccaneers’ win total is 7.5. Tampa Bay has been above 7.5 wins for four seasons in a row, including nine wins last season. The betting market believes the Bucs will take a step back this season.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “While receivers will often have randomness in their touchdown rates, there’s something to be said for consistent play design. Mike Evans has long been the designated touchdown threat in the Tampa Bay passing game, and it makes him a still-attractive fantasy pick entering his age-31 season.

“Evans, of course, has famously logged 1,000 yards or more in all 10 of his pro seasons. He’s probably already punched a Hall of Fame ticket. But it’s the touchdowns that frame Evans as fantasy royalty; he’s spiked 46 times in the last four years, including a league-high 13 touchdown catches last year.

“Contrast this to Chris Godwin, a reliable possession receiver who doesn’t score often. Although Godwin has 50 more receptions than Evans over the last four seasons, Godwin has a modest 17 touchdowns in that period — a whopping 29 scores behind his teammate. Sometimes disparities like this show for a season or two, but given that this touchdown trend is four years old, it’s wise to follow it. That’s what Yahoo drafters are doing, pushing Evans to the WR14 slot while Godwin is a modest WR36.”

The Buccaneers had an odd defensive split last season. They ranked seventh in the NFL in points allowed, but 23rd in yards allowed. That includes being tied for 25th in yards allowed per pass play.

Part of that split was due to Tampa Bay’s excellent play in the red zone. They allowed a touchdown on just 45% of their opponents’ possessions inside the 20-yard line, third-best in the NFL. Going forward, the question is whether giving up a bunch of yards between the 20s and then tightening up near the goal line is a repeatable skill, or if the many yards the Buccaneers gave up last season is a more accurate reflection of their defense.

The Buccaneers will need much better cornerback play, and that’s not easy after trading Carlton Davis III (though Davis was part of the problem last season, allowing many big plays). The pass rush will have to hold up, and the Buccaneers are expecting big things from Yaya Diaby after the 2023 third-round pick posted 7.5 sacks as a rookie. The Buccaneers were good against the run last season, have an elite safety in Antoine Winfield Jr. and did make plays when their opponents were close to the goal line. But to maintain any level of success on defense, limiting yardage has to be a priority. Bend but don’t break is a challenging long-term philosophy in the NFL.

Evans’ demise will probably be predicted every offseason until he retires. That’s what happens to receivers after they turn 30. The skepticism over Evans having another big season was high last offseason as Baker Mayfield replaced Tom Brady. And Evans responded in his age-30 season with 79 catches, 1,255 yards and 13 touchdowns. His 13 receiving TDs led the NFL, the first time Evans has led the league in any major receiving category. Evans became the first player in NFL history to reach 1,000 yards in each of his first 10 NFL seasons. It looked like Evans could switch teams as a free agent this offseason, but the Buccaneers retained their best player on a two-year, $41 million extension that isn’t too bad for the the team in an exploding receiver market. Evans is heading to the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday, and there’s no good reason he can’t get 1,000 yards and a bunch of touchdowns again even at age 31. And age 32. Maybe age 33 and 34 as well. It’s tough to keep doubting him after last season.

The Buccaneers didn’t make the playoffs and win a wild-card game by accident. The Buccaneers won five of their last six regular-season games, including one at a Packers team that everyone loves this offseason. Then the Bucs beat the Eagles in a wild-card playoff game and gave the Lions a tough challenge in the divisional round. The Buccaneers benefitted from a weak NFC South, but by the end of the season they were a worthy playoff team. Most of that team returns and if the Atlanta Falcons don’t take off with Kirk Cousins as everyone expects, the Bucs should be the best team in the division again. If Baker Mayfield can be a plus quarterback again, Tampa Bay should have an expectation of making it back to the playoffs.

The Buccaneers were supposed to be bad last season. And they were 4-7 at one point. It’s not like the advanced metrics bought the Buccaneers as one of the best teams in football. At best they were average on both sides of the ball over the season. If the defense isn’t quite as good in the red zone and Baker Mayfield steps back without Dave Canales running the offense, maybe that bad season will come to Tampa Bay after all. Maybe keeping everything the same after a 9-8 season while winning the worst division in football won’t end up being the best plan.

The Buccaneers had a good run to finish last season, but it doesn’t feel like the roster is ascending. It seems like their ceiling is again winning a weak NFC South, which wouldn’t be a terrible outcome. But there’s a reason the Falcons are favored to win the division by a wide margin. They got better in the offseason while Tampa Bay stayed mostly the same. While Tampa Bay is coming off a nice season, a step back seems probable for Baker Mayfield and the Buccaneers. After three straight NFC South titles for the Bucs, there will likely be some new blood atop the division.

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