Earlier last week, the battle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on-field general position was decided. Baker Mayfield, once the number one overall pick in the NFL draft, would lead his fourth NFL team.
A colourful if not slightly demonic graphic from the Bucs’ social media team on Twitter read, ‘Time To Bake’ and thus comes the close to an off-season saga that, in theory, should never really have materialised in the first place.
So what lies ahead for Mayfield and the Bucs? Let’s dive in.
A QB competition
The move is hardly a surprise though in today’s NFL, truly anything is possible.
When Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles announced the news in a training camp practice last Tuesday, there was almost certainly little furore in the press junket.
Mayfield, drafted by the Cleveland Browns at the #1 spot in 2018, was competing throughout the offseason with Kyle Trask, who was drafted by the Bucs in the second round of the 2021 draft.
Trask knew his assignment back then, to back up the greatest football player of all time and the man who had just led the Bucs to their first Super Bowl win since the 1990s, Tom Brady.
Then, when Brady definitively retired at the beginning of this calendar year, it was Trask who the Buccaneers were left to consider as their QB1.
Enter Mayfield during the recent off-season.
Four years with the Cleveland Browns, and just months with both the Carolina Panthers and the Los Angeles Rams earned him a one-year, $4m ‘prove it’ deal and an open QB competition with Trask.
Reports coming out of off-season training activities (OTAs) at the summer outset didn’t look pretty for either player, “multiple-interception days” were the write-ups from beat reporters.
But is Mayfield really just the better of a bad lot for the Buccaneers?
Ups and a lot of downs
The former University of Oklahoma star has had a mostly torrid time in the NFL, with all too rare bright spots mixed in.
An unfortunate headline stat is that even amongst his flashes, he has led the league in interceptions based on number of plays run every year since 2018.
To compound matters, last year, despite playing for just 12 games, he threw for 10 touchdowns and 8 interceptions and was ranked the worst quarterback for expected points added per play.
Despite these realities, Todd Bowles sounds bullish on Baker heading into a week one tilt against last year’s Super Bowl-contending Cincinnati Bengals.
“Baker’s our guy right now, experience-wise and understanding the playbook just a little bit better, but Kyle’s on the come up and we like both guys,” he told the media at Tuesday’s practice.
“We love everything Kyle has done and he’s gotten leaps and bounds better than he has in the spring and he’s continuing to get better and we’re excited about him.”
Trask will likely compete for back-up and starting roles for another year or two at least but for Baker, this is pretty much last chance saloon.
Last chance too?
Bowles could very well be right in there with him.
His Tampa tenure began on a sour note following his unceremonious canning from the Jets head coach position after a 4-12 2018 season.
But boy did he follow up well, aiding the Bucs’ successful Super Bowl run in the 2020-21 season, culminating in a glorious scheme to shut down Patrick Mahomes in the big game.
A five-year deal for the head coaching role was somewhat foisted on to him (as much as NFL head coaching roles can be foisted) when Bruce Arians transitioned to a ‘consultancy’ role in March 2022.
High hopes for a still fiercely competent team were dashed with a first round playoff exit last year. The once terrifying Buccaneers secondary and defensive line succumbed to injury and age and with Brady recently departed, all offensive wizardry was curbed.
Is Buccaneers nation and the rest of the NFL watching world now to believe that Bowles and Baker are the team to compete for a playoff berth in a division that the untrained eye could mistake for being easy?
Road to the playoffs
The NFC South has been regarded as a quarterback desert since the departures of former MVP Cam Newton and Super Bowl champion, Drew Brees in recent years.
But entering this all important year for the pair, Baker and Bowles could be sailing into stormy seas.
The Atlanta Falcons have added stud running back Bijan Robinson to an exciting young receiver core, upgraded their secondary and are hedging their bets on second year player Desmond Ridder who will run the team from the QB position for the first time.
Carolina, meanwhile, took Bryce Young in this year’s NFL draft, a QB many analysts considered to be the most NFL-ready in the whole rookie class and have upgraded both their protective offensive line and running back rooms in the off-season to boot.
The Saints are the bookies favourite to win the league and with good reason. The Drew Brees-shaped hole has been filled by former Raiders veteran Derek Carr, who has long-personified the definition of a ‘good, not great’ NFL quarterback, frequently leading his former team to near-playoff berths amidst dysfunction and talent gaps.
Carr’s getting $150m across four years and will be feeding one of the league’s most dangerous receivers, Chris Olave, who is entering his second year and already looks like an All-Pro talent.
They’ve added not one but two potent running backs in the form of Jamaal Williams and Kareem Hunt and the team’s defense looks like a top five unit.
Outside their division, the Buccaneers rank middle of the pack (17th) in terms of strength of schedule offering a neutral point from which would-be detractors could criticise both Mayfield and Bowles should the team not perform.
Some have pre-emptively started the process, with top NFL betting sites ranking the team second only behind the Cardinals to be the the last winless team in this upcoming season.
The problem for Baker is that his trajectory from here on out can only go up if he wants to remain in the NFL.
Former number one picks do not become back-ups, the draft capital required to take them means that they are too accustomed to the big money contracts and teams would rather sign cheaper, lower-round QBs with something to prove.
Retirement would probably pan out well for him if he wanted to stay within the football environment, with analyst or commentary deals for college or NFL stations highly possible.
But to keep his NFL career alive, a play-off berth minimum is the likely benchmark and that goes for the guy that put him there, too.
For more on this and everything Buccaneers check back here hourly at BucsReport.com