TAMPA — There are worse things than to have your best players performing with a little extra motivation because it’s their contract year.
Reaching free agency is the NFL’s version of the state lottery, with each player potentially holding the winning ticket.
One may even be worthy of Powerball earnings.
If the Bucs’ 20-17 win at Minnesota in Week 1 is any indication, those playing for the next big payday started updating their resumes.
Of course, the team will have some tough choices by the time free agency rolls around in March. In the meantime, they can sit back and try to make a list of priorities when it comes to allocating big bucks for big Bucs.
Let’s check on the potential return on investments from some of these potential 2024 free agents:
Devin White, inside linebacker: His trade demands fell on deaf ears. He’s had to swallow being paid $11.7 million this season for the club’s fifth-year option.
Last Sunday, White was all over the field in one of the surest-tackling games he’s had as a pro. He led the team with 12 tackles, including seven solo stops and one tackle for loss. Just as impressively, he was locked in during pass coverage, allowing only two catches for minus-2 yards. He would like to be the highest-paid inside linebacker in the league, eclipsing the Ravens’ Roquan Smith, who got a five-year, $100 million contract with $45 million guaranteed. Sixteen more performances like Sunday’s, and he may exceed it.
Antoine Winfield Jr., safety: Maybe you can go home again. Winfield grew up in Minnesota watching his dad play for the Vikings. Sunday was a homecoming, and he was the big star of the game. Winfield walked away with the triple crown: a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery all on the same play. That set up a Bucs field goal. He finished with eight total tackles. The Bucs let safety Jordan Whitehead walk a few years ago, and he signed as a free agent with the Jets. Monday night, Bills QB Josh Allen played catch with Whitehead, throwing three interceptions to him. They won’t make that mistake with Winfield.
Mike Evans, wide receiver: The self-imposed deadline for a new deal passed last Saturday without incident. Evans could have had a monster day vs. the Vikings had he pulled down a deep pass in the first half. But he got things going with his 28-yard touchdown reception from Baker Mayfield right before halftime. Evans sprinted off the field without celebration but said it wasn’t in protest. It doesn’t look likely the Bucs will pay him $25 million a year after 10 seasons. “I had a celebration planned and everything,” Evans said Friday. “But on that drive, I kind of hit my knee on the turf a little bit, and it was kind of stiff. So I was like, ‘OK, let’s just get to the sideline.’”
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Lavonte David, inside linebacker: He took a big pay cut to return to the Bucs for at least one more season, earning $7 million for one year. On Sunday, David chipped in with eight tackles, including two for loss.
There wasn’t much difference between the 33-year-old David and the 24-year-old White.
Baker Mayfield, quarterback: The 2017 Heisman Trophy winner agreed to a $4 million prove-it deal with a chance to rebuild his career after bouncing among four teams since July.
Mayfield got off to a bad start Sunday, hitting 3 of his first 11 passes for 12 yards. But he took care of the football, had a strong second half and went 18 of his last 23 for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Best comparison would be Geno Smith, who won over the Seahawks and earned a three-year, $75 million contract.
Tristan Wirfs, left tackle: Saved the best for last. Wirfs had the guts to move from right to left tackle at a time when it can benefit everyone. The Bucs at the very least will pick up his fifth-year club option of $18.22 million. You have to believe they’ll try to get something done a year earlier, but it could cost $27 million-$30 million per year. He had no false starts Sunday, no penalties of any kind, and looked like an All-Pro at his new position.
Outside linebacker Anthony Nelson got a nice raise in the offseason, agreeing to a 2-year, $10 million contract. Last Sunday, playing part-time, he recorded another sack. He had 10-1/2 over the previous two seasons despite limited playing time.
“The thing is with ‘Nelly,’ he’s been here,’” said Bucs co-defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers. “If you just keep looking at all of the plays that he’s played ... I remember Arizona last year, he caused the fumble that Devin (White) picked up. If they go and score there, I don’t know that we win that game. Or, if you think back to that Carolina game that got us into the playoffs, he had a sack-fumble. ‘Nelly’ has always done that. It’s a luxury to have him as our (third), who can start at any time. That guy just shows up and does his job, a good pro.”
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