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What should Bucs do with pending free agents Baker Mayfield, Mike Evans this offseason?

Tampa Bay has some big decisions to make after advancing to the Divisional Round this postseason.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Wide Receiver Mike Evans scores a touchdown and Quarterback Baker Mayfield hugs Evans during the regular season game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on December 24, 2023 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have been eliminated from the 2024 NFL Playoffs early but no one really expected them to be in the second round. The Bucs managed to win a weak NFC South division en route to the No. 4 seed in the NFC. Tampa Bay exceeded expectations with a win over the defending NFC Champion Eagles in the first round before bowing out to the Lions in the Divisional Round. There’s a lot to like about this Bucs team but we’re unsure if this will be the same group back in 2024-25.

There are big question marks in free agency, specifically with the two most important players on offense — QB Baker Mayfield and WR Mike Evans. We’re going to go over their situation as pending unrestricted free agents and whether or not Tampa Bay should bring them back.

What should Bucs do this offseason?

Case to bring back Baker Mayfield

Mayfield feels like a big “YES” in terms of whether or not he should be brought back. The issue is what that contract might look like. Mayfield signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Bucs to be the starting QB and had his best NFL season. Mayfield finished with over 4,000 passing yards, 28 TDs and just 10 INTs while helping the team reach the playoffs. Mayfield is still young at 28 years old and the market for a starting QB is pretty competitive. You’d guess plenty of teams would come calling if the Bucs can’t sign Mayfield to a new deal. Again, the issue is how much Mayfield could command in free agency.

Realistically, you’d think that next contract could fall within the $30-40 million range. Some of the projections being reported are Mayfield making around $36 million per season on a new deal. That’s a hefty raise but the Bucs have a decent amount of cap flexibility. So with the cap also expected to go up over the next few seasons, it makes sense to pay Mayfield and try to build a contending team around him. The Bucs also don’t have a clear replacement right now and would likely be looking for a new QB in free agency anyway. Bringing back Mayfield on a 3-4 year deal allows the team to draft a QB for the future now, let him sit and learn for a few seasons before taking over.

Verdict: Bring back Mayfield.

Case to bring back Mike Evans

Evans is a bit trickier. He’s been one of the most consistent NFL WRs over the past decade or so. Evans is also coming off a great year, finishing tied for the League lead in touchdown catches with 13 while finishing 9th in receiving yards with 1,255. It’s almost like he was in a contract year or something. A lot of Mayfield and Evans’ success in 2023 should go to offensive coordinator Dave Canales, who could leave for the Carolina Panthers’ head coaching job, per reports. That could impact how Tampa Bay approaches Evans’ pending free agency.

At 30 years old, Evans is likely to start declining. It doesn’t make sense to give an aging WR a long-term deal and that deal could be worth anywhere from $20-30 million per season. Can Evans continue to be a top wideout in 2024? Of course. He likely will. But past that you’d expect from drop-off. The Bucs also have WR Chris Godwin under contract for another season before he’s a free agent, plus this is a pretty deep wide receiver class for the 2024 NFL Draft.

It almost never makes sense to pay a top wide receiver big money. We’ve seen plenty of top wideouts come into the NFL via the draft and thrive right away, giving teams flexibility with the cap on rookie contracts. Rookie WR Trey Palmer showed enough flashes that he could step up into the WR2 role next season. The Bucs could also sign a cheap veteran FA WR while also bringing someone in from the draft as depth.

The big issue is if you pay both Mayfield and Evans. Both are aging. You’d be allocating anywhere from $50-60 million in cap to just two players. You almost always take the QB over the WR in this situation. It’s easier to replace Evans’ production than find a new starting QB to mold an offense around.

Verdict: Let Evans walk, draft/sign some WR depth.