Bucs re-signing Mike Evans leaves looming Mayfield questions

TAMPA, Fla. -- The re-signing of wide receiver Mike Evans was one of the first dominoes to fall for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they gear up for the free agency frenzy next week, and it could be just the beginning before free agency officially opens March 13.

Teams can re-sign their own players at any time, and keeping Evans -- one of the top names on the market -- helps keep the Bucs' quest to remain a contender alive two seasons into future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady's retirement.

General manager Jason Licht said at the combine last week that the team would likely have to strain to re-sign Evans to make him a "Buc for life." Licht made good on that proclamation, even leaving the combine early Saturday to return to Tampa to start working on the deal, sources said, that landed the two sides on a two-year deal worth up to $52 million Monday to keep the franchise's all-time leading receiver in Tampa.

Evans had been prepared to enter the negotiation period of free agency on March 11, where teams can begin talking to players before signing them two days later, but he called his agent, Deryk Gilmore, in the middle of the night in the last couple of days to tell him he wanted to be a "Buc for life," which got the ball rolling.

Now the attention shifts to re-signing quarterback Baker Mayfield. Sources said conversations that began at the combine between the Bucs and Mayfield's agent, Tom Mills, were "positive." Licht characterized the union with Mayfield as the "perfect marriage" for the Bucs. When asked about the 2024 quarterback draft class at the combine, Licht said, "You can never rule it out, but I'd say right now the focus is on signing Baker."

Sources at the combine also said that Mayfield may not even make it to free agency because his desire to remain in Tampa is strong, as the Bucs afforded him an opportunity to revive his career last season. There's also a high degree of organizational stability at this time, something he's longed for after bouncing around once the Cleveland Browns agreed to trade him to the Carolina Panthers in the summer of 2022 -- the start of him being with four organizations in less than a one-year span.

Yes, several members of the offensive coaching staff left Tampa, including former offensive coordinator Dave Canales after he accepted the Panthers' head-coaching job, but the Bucs brought in former Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who worked with Mayfield for five games in 2022 and runs a very similar system. The Bucs also consulted with Mayfield on offensive coordinator candidates, which was extremely encouraging for Mayfield -- making him feel that his voice and his opinion really counted.

Mayfield is on record earlier this offseason saying "Mike made my life very easy this year" and also went on to say that he would "love to play with him again."

"If I'm back, I want Mike back," Mayfield said after their playoff loss in the divisional round. "That guy's a stud."

Although that's not the only thing that will go into the 2018 No. 1 overall pick's decision, all signs not only point to this being a positive for Mayfield, but the move also could very well keep Evans in Tampa for the duration of his career. Sources close to Evans said at a minimum he wants to play two more years, which, for now, is what he believes he can still do at a very high level.

Evans told ESPN at the end of the season, "I definitely gave it all I had physically, mentally, and I just love this place. ... I love the city and I love the franchise."

Evans said he had played on more talented teams in 2020, 2021 and 2022, but the team's competitive spirit -- winning five out of the past six regular-season games to win the NFC South and defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round of the playoffs -- moved him.

"The heart is definitely one of the best teams that I've been on, as far as heart and fighting to the end and just not listening to the outside," Evans said.

So Sunday night, Evans called his agent, Deryk Gilmore, and told him, "I want to be a Buc for life."

There are other moves to keep an eye on, as well. The Bucs are still working out contract structure on Evans' deal, so salary cap hits aren't known yet, and that will impact how much they have for remaining deals. There are still potential moves that can be made to free up cap space, like potentially cutting wide receiver Russell Gage after he missed the season with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee, which would free up nearly $6.5 million in salary cap space. The team already released outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, providing nearly $5 million in cap savings.

The franchise tag deadline is Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield Jr. would be a strong candidate. If the Bucs use the tag on Winfield, it would cost the Bucs $16.22 million. But if Winfield hits the open market, he could top Derwin James Jr.'s $19 million average per year. At the very least, he should make $16.005 million per year, which is what Jessie Bates III is making annually with the Atlanta Falcons.

Use of the tag doesn't preclude teams from ultimately re-signing players to long-term deals, either. The last time the Bucs elected to use the franchise tag was in 2022, when it served as a placeholder for a long-term deal for wide receiver Chris Godwin before he signed a three-year contract worth $60 million.

The team would also like to re-sign All-Pro left tackle Tristan Wirfs to a long-term deal. He's currently set to play on the fifth-year option worth $18.22 million in 2024.

And then there's inside linebacker and longtime captain Lavonte David, whom the team also wants to bring back and keep as a "Buc for life."