TAMPA, Fla. - Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield said Wednesday that a key reason he emerged from "dark times" in 2022 - when he bounced around four different NFL teams after being a first overall draft pick in 2018 - was because the Bucs "let me be the best version of myself" and because he "had fun playing football again."

Mayfield, 28, also said he didn't know if he and the Bucs would ultimately strike a deal before the start of free agency, which kicked off Monday at noon with the NFL's negotiation window, which would allow the Bucs to talk to other quarterbacks and allow other teams to enter the picture. He wound up signing a three-year contract with the Bucs worth $100 million and up to $115 million on Sunday.

"There were times that the couple days prior we didn't know if we were going to get it done before free agency hit. So it was a lot of ups and downs," said Mayfield, who said he had to start considering what Plan B might look like if things fell through.

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"Unfortunately I had to think about that. I had to think about the fact that we would be here for the birth of our daughter before we even move," said Mayfield, whose wife Emily is due to have their first child next month. "We wanted to be back, but if it wasn't going to be the right fit for us, we were going to let God take control again and that was the big thing. We tried to be as patient as we could. I would be lying if I said we were happy the whole time, but it worked out how it's supposed to..."

The catalyst was Mayfield texting general manager Jason Licht while he was at lunch at the Salt Shack in Tampa with his wife Emily, left tackle Tristan Wirfs and Wirf's girlfriend Meredith, who like the Mayfields, are also expecting their first child, at the end of March. He said, "Are we gonna get this thing done or what?"

Licht was in his office with assistant general manager Mike Greenberg and vice president of football research Jacqueline Davidson - coincidentally finishing up their lunches -- and they sprang into action immediately to lock in one of the NFL's best comeback stories of 2023 for another chapter.

"He had us circled as the best place to go and we had him circled as the best player to come and follow the legend, Tom Brady," Licht said. "Not many quarterbacks would have the confidence to do that, but Baker certainly did. We love his leadership - we love his ability on the field - but his leadership, his ability to rally the team, the city, the fanbase has been surreal."

As the deal was finalized shortly after, Mayfield and his group celebrated while news flashed across the bottom ticker of a nearby television screen. There were text messages to center Robert Hainsey and right tackle Luke Goedeke, whom Mayfield says became some of his closest friends. They were soon joined by new offensive coordinator Liam Coen and assistant offensive line coach Brian Picucci. And he made a phone call to wide receiver Mike Evans, who was already back in Houston, and whom he admitted to sending a few frustrated text messages to prior.

"I called him and just said, 'Well, I guess we're getting the band back together," Mayfield said. "How close I became with these guys, it became a huge factor in the decision. Knowing that I'm going to fight for them and they're going to fight for me. That's a big thing for us. It's a great group."

With little money in the wake of a three-year Brady run last year - including Brady counting $35 million against the salary cap last season - the Bucs signed Mayfield to a one-year deal worth $4 million in which he had to compete with Kyle Trask for a starting job. At that point, Mayfield had been traded away by the Cleveland Browns, cut by the Carolina Panthers after going 1-5 as a starter, and he had a five-game stint with the Los Angeles Rams. But it was enough for coach Todd Bowles, who grew fond of Mayfield during the pre-draft evaluation process when he was with the New York Jets in 2018. He was also Licht's top quarterback on the Bucs' draft board that year.

"We go back some ways. So we kinda talked after we played each other, each time we played each other," said Bowles, who credited Mayfield's mental toughness for his resurgence. "For a quarterback - there are very few great ones that's not in the right system. You can be a good quarterback and be in the wrong system, and some get thrown by the wayside and some happen to find their niche. I think Baker found his niche and we found out what worked well for and we kinda played to those strengths. I think that every team that has a great quarterback plays to those strengths and he found his."

Mayfield led the Bucs to a 9-8 record season record, an NFL South title and a 32-9 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. His 106.3 postseason passer rating in two playoff games set a new franchise postseason record, and his 3.0 postseason touchdown-interception ratio also matched Brady's during his Buccaneers tenure. He also went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate.

Mayfield said that year of adversity was a "true test of character."

"My journey has not been the one that I exactly envisioned - a lot of ups and downs - but just trusting it." Mayfield said. "For me, trying to relate it to some of the things I did - from high school [and] having to walk on, to college [and] having to battle for a job, losing a job in Cleveland, going to Carolina, having to move to L.A. [With] all of those things, you realize mental toughness can take you a long way. Trusting in yourself and believing in yourself and having that confidence and trusting in God that you have everything you're capable of and you have it all right there available for you, so just go do that and be the best version of yourself. For me, this was a good place that has already shown me that I can do that."

When asked about other quarterbacks who will now try to reignite their careers, looking to him as a source of inspiration the way Geno Smith was for others in 2022, Mayfield said that it was all about finding the right opportunity. He simply needed to be in a stable organization that let him be himself, from the way he led to the way he played. Rather than display Brady's finesse in the pocket, he'd leave it quickly -- lowering his helmet and barreling towards defenders for a first down, which often ignited the Bucs' sideline.

"I keep mentioning to be the 'best version of myself' and that means a lot," Mayfield said. "So -- it is a tricky business. There's injuries, there's a lot of things that can happen to you in your career. Self-inflicted ones too. And I've gone through both of those. And so for me it's a good opportunity to be able to [say], 'There's light at the end of the tunnel.'

"And not to say that I'm satisfied by any means, but you can push through these challenges and the ups and downs that you go through, and the mentality I came in here with was, 'As long as I can say that I was the best teammate possible to these guys, that was the best leader possible for these guys, and I did everything that I could to work extremely hard and control, that I was going to hang my head high.' And we did that, we stuck together. And so that was a big reason why I had fun playing football again and that's a huge factor in me playing better."