TAMPA — Baker Mayfield has always been a champion of the little guy as a 6-foot-1 NFL quarterback. But he’s never short on belief.
Just as he did when he turned down a scholarship to Florida Atlantic and Washington State to walk on at Texas Tech and then Oklahoma, eventually winning the Heisman Trophy and becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, Mayfield is brazenly betting on himself.
He saw what Geno Smith was able to do in the Seahawks offense — which new coordinator Dave Canales brought to Tampa Bay — by becoming the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
That’s why he agreed to a one-year contract worth up to $8.5 million Wednesday with the Bucs. His base salary is $4 million. The first overall pick by the Browns is joining his third team since he was traded to the Panthers last July.
“It’s the Geno Smith model. He came in and became the starter for one year and then got himself the big three-year contract. Baker wants that opportunity,” said Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who held the same job with the Browns in 2019 but didn’t call plays. “He saw what Coach Canales did and wants to replicate it and get an opportunity to be a starter again. I’m sure that’s what attracted Baker.”
Here’s how the NFC South stacks up at quarterback. The Saints have Raiders free agent Derek Carr. The Falcons will choose between Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke, who agreed to a deal Tuesday. The Panthers traded for the No. 1 overall pick, where they will likely choose between Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud.
Mayfield, meanwhile, will battle Kyle Trask for the Bucs’ starting job in training camp.
Given the fact the Bucs began the offseason more than $57 million over the salary cap, landing an experienced quarterback such as Mayfield is about as good as the Bucs could expect.
They couldn’t compete for Carr, who signed with the Saints, or Jimmy Garoppolo, who went to the Raiders.
Given his experience ― Mayfield is 31-38 and has passed for 16,288 yards and 102 touchdowns with 64 interceptions ― he was the best veteran quarterback they could find to replace Tom Brady.
Mayfield, 27, was traded to the Panthers last July for a 2024 conditional draft pick. Carolina paid $4.85 of his $15.35 million salary. He won the starting job over Sam Darnold. When the Panthers fired coach Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start, Mayfield sustained a high ankle sprain and missed a start. When he returned, the Panthers had gone to P.J. Walker at quarterback and Mayfield was released.
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He was claimed by the Rams, and after only two days of practice, started against the Raiders on Thursday Night Football. The Rams fell behind 16-3 but he rallied them to a pair or touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Mayfield capped a 75-yard drive with a 1-yard run by Cam Akers. The Rams defense held but Mayfield was pinned back to his own 2-yard line. He led a 98-yard, game-winning drive while completing 5-of-6 passes for 80 yards.
Before that? Mayfield had plenty of trials with the Browns.
The pressure of being a No. 1 overall pick is huge, particularly at the quarterback position. But added to it was the fact that Mayfield was going to a dysfunctional franchise that had won four games in three seasons while losing 44.
Mayfield played for four head coaches in three years: Hue Jackson (2018), Gregg Williams (2018), Freddie Kitchens (2019) and Kevin Stefanski (2020-21).
His best season as a pro came in 2020 when he led the Browns to an 11-5 regular-season record and a win over the Steelers in the AFC wild-card game. Mayfield passed for 3,563 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The next year came a fallout with receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and a left shoulder injury that he continued to play through.
“I think it’s tough situation he got put into,” Monken said. “Different coordinators, different systems. Expectations. They comes with being the top pick in the draft. A lot of things that were difficult in a lot ways.”
With the Panthers, Mayfield went 1-5 while throwing for 1,313 yards with six touchdowns and six picks. Surrounded by a better cast with the Rams, his numbers improved to 850 yards passing with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Maybe Mayfield left a good impression on Bucs coach Todd Bowles early in his career. His NFL debut came against the Jets and Bowles. He went 17 of 23 passing for 201 yards with no touchdowns while leading the Browns on a 65-yard drive for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:04 remaining in a 21-17 victory.
With Tampa Bay, Mayfield will be able to compete on a team that still has plenty of weapons on offense, including receivers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage, a young tight end in Cade Otton and running back Rachaad White.
If he wins the starting job and games, Mayfield knows the payoff, like the three-year, $75 million deal Smith signed with the Seahawks, will be there.
Mayfield’s agent, Tom Mills, noted that the Bucs still have many pieces from their Super Bowl team and a good chance to win.
“That was big in his decision,” Mills said.
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