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Baker Mayfield’s one of cheapest QBs around, but that will soon change

John Romano | The Bucs’ quarterback has resurrected his reputation and could be in line for a bigger payday when he hits free agency in 2024.
 
The spotlight is likely to get much brighter on Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield after his bounce-back season in Tampa Bay in 2023. Mayfield could be one of the top two free-agent quarterbacks available in the offseason.
The spotlight is likely to get much brighter on Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield after his bounce-back season in Tampa Bay in 2023. Mayfield could be one of the top two free-agent quarterbacks available in the offseason. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 5, 2023

TAMPA — The fate of the team is still to be determined. So, too, is the future of the head coach.

The quarterback, on the other hand, may have already cashed in.

We’re 12 games into the Baker Mayfield era in Tampa Bay, and the quarterback’s decision to sign with the Bucs appears to have paid off handsomely. His stock is not nearly as high as it was when he entered the league as the No. 1 pick of the Browns in 2018, but it looks far better than it did nine months ago.

When free agency rolls around again early next year, Mayfield is looking like he will be one of the top quarterbacks on the market.

That would be worlds away from the reception Mayfield got earlier this season when the Bucs signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal.

Back then, Mayfield’s reputation was looking wobbly after bouncing from Cleveland to Carolina to Los Angeles in the same calendar year. Nine other free-agent quarterbacks got more guaranteed money than Mayfield’s deal with Tampa Bay. Nine!

Jarrett Stidham got more guaranteed money than Mayfield. So did Mike White and Brian Hoyer and Taylor Heinicke. As it turns out, most of those nine quarterbacks were signed with the idea that they would be backups or safety nets.

In retrospect, that’s the beauty of Mayfield’s deal with the Bucs.

For the price of a mid-level offensive lineman, the Bucs got a starting quarterback with pedigree. That pedigree may have been dented and dinged, but Mayfield had taken Cleveland to the second round of the playoffs just a few years ago.

And, for his part, Mayfield took a below-market deal because he knew he had a clear path to the starting job in Tampa Bay’s huddle. He was able to refurbish his reputation as a passer and a leader in the locker room with minimal competition.

So what are the results?

Mayfield is on pace to throw for more than 3,900 yards with 25 touchdowns and an interception rate below the league average. He’s had to work with one of the worst running games in the league, and yet his passer rating is a respectable 90.0.

Not only has he been the most cost-effective quarterback from the 2023 free-agent class, he may be the best passer overall. He’s certainly had a better reception in Tampa Bay than Derek Carr has gotten in New Orleans (with $60 million guaranteed) and Jimmy Garoppolo has had in Las Vegas ($45 million guaranteed).

(You could make an argument for Gardner Minshew, who got $3.5 million guaranteed from Indianapolis and has gone 5-3 as a starter, although he’s had mostly pedestrian numbers.)

All of which suggests Mayfield should be much richer in a few months.

The question is how much money will it take to sign him, and will the Bucs be able to afford it?

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As valuable as quarterbacks are — and as difficult as it is to find a proven winner — very few quality passers ever hit the street as free agents. It’s usually a collection of has-beens or guys who have never fulfilled their promise.

In the past five years, only six quarterbacks have gotten at least $25 million guaranteed in free agency. Five of them could be classified as disappointments, although it’s still early in the case of Carr and Garoppolo. The only successful free-agent quarterback since 2019?

Yeah, Tom Brady in Tampa Bay.

Which brings us to the free-agent class of 2024. Right now, Kirk Cousins looks to be the top quarterback available, but Mayfield is probably next in line. He’ll be 29 next season, which is three years younger than both Carr and Garoppolo were this spring. It’s also a year younger than Nick Foles was in 2019 when he got a four-year, $88 million deal with $50 million guaranteed in Jacksonville and a year older than Teddy Bridgewater was when he got three years and $63 million (with $33 million guaranteed) in Carolina.

A financial analysis site, overthecap.com, puts Mayfield’s performance valuation in 2023 at $31 million, which makes him one of the best bargains in the NFL. The salary cap website Spotrac.com estimates Mayfield’s market value at two years and $33.4 million in free agency.

The Bucs will have a lot more cap space in 2024 than they did this season, but they also need to decide what to do with Mike Evans, Antoine Winfield Jr., Devin White and Lavonte David, who are all pending free agents.

Much of this discussion will probably be driven by how the Bucs finish in 2023. Is there enough faith in the current roster to keep it intact for 2024, or do the Bucs decide a rebuild is necessary?

Either way, it looks like Mayfield is going to get paid.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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