TAMPA — So, let’s be honest with ourselves:
Now that the signing is official and the news conference is over, it’s time to admit the odds of Baker Mayfield becoming an elite quarterback in Tampa Bay are not great. Heck, they’re not even good.
That’s not criticism, by the way. Merely an observation based on the evidence, the history of the NFL and the current condition of the Bucs roster.
Because there is still some glitter on his crumpled-up resume, there is hope that the Bucs have found something special while scouring the bargain bins. A Heisman Trophy winner? The top pick in a draft? A quarterback just a couple of years removed from a playoff run?
That’s not a bad rebound for Tampa Bay considering what the depth chart looked like a week ago. In fact, compared to the guaranteed money Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Geno Smith, Taylor Heinicke and Andy Dalton got in recent weeks, I’d argue Mayfield may have been the best quarterback value of the month.
If you look at it in stock market terms, the Bucs are buying low with the hope that the rest of the NFL has overreacted to Mayfield’s very public implosion in Cleveland. That’s not a bad strategy for a team with limited salary cap space.
Here’s a simple illustration of that idea:
In 2018, Cleveland spent a No. 1 pick and $32.7 million for four years of Mayfield.
In 2021, Cleveland agreed to pick up his fifth-year option at $18.8 million.
In 2022, the Panthers traded a fifth-round draft pick and guaranteed $5 million of Mayfield’s contract, with another $3.5 million in incentives and the Browns picking up the rest of the bill.
And now, in 2023, the Bucs got Mayfield for $4 million guaranteed, with a possible $4.5 million in incentives.
That’s a fairly low salary for a quarterback who supposedly had tremendous upside just a few years ago and is still a few weeks shy of turning 28.
But, of course, that decline in value speaks to Mayfield’s obviously diminished reputation. It suggests that an awful lot of very smart people in the NFL decided Mayfield’s size or skills or personality or decision-making were not optimum for a starting quarterback.
So are they all wrong? Were the Browns wrong by giving up on Mayfield so quickly? Were the Panthers wrong by waiving him after six starts? Was every other team in search of a quarterback this offseason wrong in not pursuing Mayfield more vigorously?
Or did Tampa Bay outsmart everyone else?
I’m not saying that isn’t a possibility, but history suggests it isn’t likely.
There is an entire golf course filled with quarterbacks who were taken high in recent drafts and, a few years later, were bouncing around from training camp to training camp: Sam Bradford, Blake Bortles, David Carr, Sam Darnold, Robert Griffin III, Joey Harrington, Marcus Mariota, JaMarcus Russell, Mark Sanchez, Mitch Trubisky, Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston, Vince Young. Like Mayfield, some of those QBs had early flashes of success with their original team. But all of them moved on fairly quickly, and not one of them went on to win a playoff game with a second team.
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So what the Bucs are doing is taking a calculated risk that Mayfield can be an anomaly. That he can be Drew Brees leaving San Diego or Brett Favre leaving Atlanta. Heck, even if he’s Kerry Collins or Rich Gannon, it would be a great move for Tampa Bay.
You look at Mayfield’s numbers in 2020 with Cleveland (26 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, a 95.9 passer rating) and you see hope that he can thrive in the right circumstances. You look at the disfunction he’s endured with so many head coaches and coordinators, and you wonder if the fault is not entirely his. You stay long enough at happy hour and you can convince yourself this can be Tom Brady, the sequel.
Except the major problem with that scenario is what Mayfield is inheriting here.
He did not choose Tampa Bay because the Bucs look like an up-and-coming team the way they did when Brady was a free agent in 2020. Mayfield came because his options were limited and the Bucs likely offered him the easiest path to a starting job.
And now he has to revive his career with an offense that could not run the ball last season, a center coming off a major knee injury, an undetermined replacement at left tackle and a rookie offensive coordinator. Not to mention, a head coach who might be on the hot seat.
I’m not saying it can’t work. Or it won’t work.
I’m just saying it’s not likely to work.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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