TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Baker Mayfield and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers feel they’ve built a strong foundation for continued success.
The biggest question the NFC South champions face in the coming months is whether the team’s future includes the much-traveled quarterback, who resurrected his career by replacing Tom Brady and leading the Bucs to a third straight division title.
Mayfield reiterated after Sunday’s 31-23 NFC divisional-round playoff loss to the Detroit Lions that he would like remain to with Tampa Bay after playing this season on a one-year, $4 million contract that also paid him more than $2 million in incentives.
While the Bucs are open to the prospect of a long-term deal, talks have not begun with the 28-year-old, who has played with four teams over the last three seasons.
“I love this group. I said it all year, and it’s authentic. I mean that,” Mayfield said. “It would mean a lot to bring back a lot of key pieces to get this back together, to get it to year two in a system where you can make huge strides.
“I would love that,” Mayfield added. “Obviously, who knows how it’s going to play out, but I can't say enough about this organization for the opportunity they gave me this year. (I'm) just thankful, hoping it works out.”
The No. 1 overall pick from the 2018 draft set career highs in completions (364), passing yards (4,044) and touchdowns (28) while also cutting down on costly mistakes that undermined previous stints with the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Rams.
The Bucs signed Mayfield in the weeks following the retirement of Brady last winter, envisioning him as a nice fit for a system being installed by incoming offensive coordinator Dave Canales.
Coach Todd Bowles notes one of the best things Mayfield did to win over the locker room was to not try to be like Brady.
“He didn’t take over for Tom. Tom retired. Baker became a quarterback on a new team with a new offensive coordinator. He took over for himself. We built it differently, ran it differently and it was run differently around him,” Bowles said.
“Again, we can’t compare Baker to Tom. Tom’s Mount Rushmore. Tom’s off on his own. We started a new system with new guys and new energy,” the coach added. “Baker carved his own mark. I’m proud of him for that.”
Bowles repeated that he would like to see Mayfield return.
“Obviously it’s too early to talk about, and business is business,” Bowles said. “But Baker had a hell of a year. We’ll see what the future holds.”
The same applies for leading receiver Mike Evans, whose contract is set to expire. Linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White are among others set to become free agents, meaning the Bucs face numerous difficult decisions.
Like David, a veteran of 12 seasons who's a defensive leader and fan favorite, Evans has been with the Bucs his entire career.
The 30-year-old receiver tied for the NFL lead in TD receptions with 13, and he's only player in NFL history to begin a career with 10 consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus yards receiving.
Evans, who was disappointed when he didn’t land a contract extension last summer, was a second-team All-Pro selection. He repeated again Sunday that he’d “love” to remain in a Bucs uniform.
“So, we’ll see,” the receiver said, adding that he strongly believes Mayfield played his way into a new deal this season.
“Baker’s a hell of a player,” Evans said. “He showed everybody that he’s criminally underrated.”
Bowles, meanwhile, was asked if he cringes at the thought of Evans potentially playing for a different team.
“I don’t even think about it. I don’t like to be asked about it,” Bowles said Monday. “I don’t want to know about it. I hope to hell that does not happen.”
Few outside the Tampa Bay locker room expected the Bucs (10-9) to finish with a winning record, much less repeat as NFC South champions after Brady retired and Mayfield was brought in to compete with third-year pro Kyle Trask for the starting QB job.
The Bucs got off a surprising 3-1 start, then dropped six of seven to fall to 4-7 and seemingly out of playoff contention. The team rebounded to go 5-1 over the final six weeks of the regular season and began their playoff run with a home win over defending NFC champion Philadelphia.
“It wasn’t exactly about the doubters, (though) obviously the motivation does help fuel you,” Mayfield said. “It was about self-belief. That’s what this team should be proud of.”
DEMAND FOR BAKER
Bowles said he’s not sure how much competition there would be from other teams to sign Mayfield on the open market this winter.
“It’s a good question. I’m pretty sure he’d be in demand. ... Obviously, money plays a lot of part of free agency and loyalty plays a lot of part in free agency, and who actually wants you and where you can go and what you can afford plays a lot, and how you see yourself in certain systems,” the coach said.
“It’ll be a tricky thing. He was great here, we love him to death,” Bowles added. “Hopefully it works out for us.”
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