Buccaneers Likely To Use Franchise Tag On S Antoine Winfield Jr.

Baker Mayfield‘s resurgence gives the Buccaneers a host of tasks to complete this offseason, as a handful of cornerstone players are less than a month from hitting the open market. One of them is unlikely to have that option, regardless of how extension talks play out.

The Bucs are likely to use their franchise tag on Antoine Winfield Jr., according to CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones. The tag window opens Feb. 20 and closes March 5, giving teams the customary two-week period to work out a deal before the tender price goes on their cap sheet. With the safety number on the lower end, Winfield makes more sense as the Bucs’ tag recipient than Mayfield or Mike Evans.

[RELATED: Bucs Eyeing Mayfield Deal Before Free Agency]

Suggested here as the likely Bucs franchise player months ago, Winfield closed out his season with a value-cementing stretch. The second-generation NFL DB scored a first-team All-Pro nod, despite being left off the Pro Bowl roster, and will be in line for top-market money at the position. Derwin James‘ $19MM-per-year pact still holds the No. 1 AAV spot at safety, and Jones notes the Bucs will need to give Winfield a deal on that level to lock him down. Unless the sides can reach a monster extension by 3pm CT on March 5, the tag is likely coming out for the former second-round pick.

The safety tag is on track to check in around $17.2MM this year. That is a more reasonable scenario than tagging Mayfield at nearly $36MM. A Bucs-Mayfield resolution, one both sides want to reach, will need to be agreed to by 11am March 11; the legal tampering period’s launch will allow the Bucs QB to negotiate with other teams. Although Mayfield may not be worth that tag, the Bucs would run the risk of losing him if they cannot agree to terms by that March 11 point.

Winfield broke through with a dominant contract year. The Minnesota alum finished with six sacks and an NFL-leading six forced fumbles, including a goal-line strip of DJ Chark that allowed the Bucs to hold off the Panthers in Week 18 — a win vital to the team’s eventual journey to the divisional round. The 25-year-old defender also established new career-high marks in tackles (122) and interceptions (three) last season. There is not much more he could have done to make a case to become the NFL’s new highest-paid safety.

Last year’s free agency divided the top safeties into two tiers: Jessie Bates and the field. The Falcons gave Bates a four-year, $64MM deal. That could serve as Winfield’s floor in Bucs talks. The top of the safety market has not moved since James’ summer 2022 deal, one that came in just north of Minkah Fitzpatrick‘s 2022 Steelers re-up ($18.2MM per year). The Seahawks erred by giving Jamal Adams a monster extension in 2021 — a $17MM-per-year deal that moved the market considerably — but the Chargers, Steelers and Broncos (Justin Simmons) have benefited from authorizing high-end safety accords. Bates also made an impact in his first Atlanta season.

A starter since Day 1 with the Bucs, Winfield played a key role in Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl LV romp over Kansas City — a win that has aged particularly well in light of the Chiefs’ recent success. He joins Tristan Wirfs in that regard. Tampa Bay’s other impact 2020 draftee is signed through 2024, via the fifth-year option, but looks to be in range to reset the tackle market. Unless the Bucs want to move into a tag situation with Wirfs in 2025, their best bet will be to hammer out a big-ticket extension this offseason. Two market-setting extensions and a major Mayfield raise suddenly changes the equation for the Bucs.

The Bucs have done well to keep their homegrown DBs in recent years. They re-signed cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean in 2022 and 2023, respectively, letting each test the market briefly. While eager to keep Winfield paired with the veteran corners, the Bucs do not look ready to let the dynamic safety talk with other teams come March. Thanks to using void years to restructure Winfield’s rookie contract last summer, a small dead-money bill ($1.6MM) will arrive Monday, Jones adds.

Mayfield and Winfield join Evans and Lavonte David as free agents the Bucs are interested in re-signing. The team holds just more than $36MM, but Jason Licht has been one of the more active GMs on the restructure front in recent years. This was due largely to the team’s effort to load up around Tom Brady and then create necessary cap space after the retired QB’s void years-driven bill came due in 2023. Brady’s contract is now fully off the Bucs’ books, opening the door for the team to pursue new deals with its in-house UFAs-to-be.

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