TAMPA — Baker Mayfield stood behind a reporter and stared at Payne Durham. The Bucs quarterback had a huge smile on his face watching the rookie talk about his big catch last Sunday — while giving Mayfield credit.
Mayfield laughed and walked away. The last two weeks have been something of an initiation to the NFL for Durham, and the interview was just another milestone in his first year in the NFL.
After being a healthy scratch for the first four games of the season and then having one catch over the next five, Durham has become a bigger option in the offense. In the last two weeks, he was on the field for a career-high 12 snaps.
An increase in Durham’s workload not only could give the Bucs more options on offense but help preserve Cade Otton, who leads the NFL in snaps per game for tight ends with an average of 63.2.
Durham, the fifth-round pick out of Purdue, had one of the Bucs’ highlights in the 27-20 loss to the Colts, beating Darrell Baker Jr. on a jump ball to set up a Tampa Bay touchdown.
“I’m just seeing huge confidence growth in Payne. I think that comes with his level of comfortability in the calls,” offensive coordinator Dave Canales said. “He did a fantastic job in protection last week. Then, finishing his routes, catching the ball and really giving us another big target for (Mayfield) to give him that ball in that situation. The (defender) was in great position, but he showed in college his ability to play big to the ball.
“I think the side story is with this confidence and him knowing what he’s doing, his personality … he really is a fun guy to be around. We’re seeing a lot more of that in the last couple of weeks out of him.”
On his highlight-reel catch, which at first looked like a sure Mayfield interception, Durham turned and got within inches of the goal line. The Bucs scored from there.
“I’ve tried not to look at it. For one day it was cool, and now it’s on to the Panthers,” said Durham, after admitting he had gotten quite a bit of feedback on the play. “I tried to forget about it pretty quick.”
But Mayfield and his teammates didn’t forget.
“Those 50/50 balls, that’s where you earn a quarterback’s trust right there,” Otton said. “You don’t get that many of them so when you get an opportunity, you’ve got to make them, and he did. So I was super pumped for him; I just wish he would have scored.”
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Otton said that within the close-knit group of tight ends, he could see Durham growing into a big role quickly. A lacrosse player most of his youth, Durham only turned to football his senior year of high school and is a quick learner.
Still, it took a while for the Georgia native to adjust to the NFL.
“We have amazing vets on this team that have been doing this for a long time,” Durham said. “Watching how they work, how they operate day to day has been really good, then meeting extra with my coach, (and) staying late after practice with my coach. I tell myself every day, just 1% better, so that’s been what I have been really trying to focus on and do.”
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