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Ex-Buccaneers HC Bruce Arians a fan of QB prospect Michael Penix Jr.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won five of their final six regular-season games to make a playoff run behind a resurgent season from quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Mayfield, a free agent, has expressed interest in returning to the Bucs this offseason. The interest is mutual, too.

But that doesn't mean the Buccaneers aren't also considering other QB options.

Bruce Arians, once Tampa Bay's coach and now listed as a senior advisor to GM Jason Licht, recently told the Tampa Bay Times' Rick Stroud that there's a college quarterback who has piqued his interest.

Washington's Michael Penix Jr. is coming off a brilliant season, finishing second in the Heisman Trophy Award balloting and leading the Huskies to a spot in the National Championship Game, where they lost to Michigan. And though Penix had some struggles in that game against the Wolverines in addition to suffering an ankle injury, he was terrific in the Sugar Bowl semifinal vs. No. 3 Texas, completing 29 of 38 passes for 430 yards and two touchdowns, with 31 rushing yards on three carries, earning game MVP honors.

Arians, who is helping Licht prepare for the 2024 NFL Draft, sat up and took notice at Penix in that game -- and seemed fascinated by his potential.

"As far as the football grade, I love (Penix) because he does things I love to do," Arians told Stroud. "He puts (the ball) up the field. He's as accurate on throws up the field as anyone I've seen in 15 years Just to fight through that last game after he had that ankle tore up. But what he did to Texas was unbelievable."

Penix is a complicated evaluation, however. He's going to turn 24 shortly after April's draft, which is a bit on the older side for a QB prospect. But more concerningly, Penix has a lengthy injury history that dates back to Indiana, where he started his college career.

Penix suffered season-ending injuries in four straight seasons from 2018 to 2021. He suffered torn ACLs in both 2018 and 2020, and shoulder injuries ended his 2019 and 2021 seasons. Penix was able to rebound from the ankle injury against Michigan to perform at the Senior Bowl, going through a week's worth of practices before sitting out the game at week's end.

Arians understands the medical risks with Penix, which will be a big story at the 2024 NFL Combine, which begins Feb. 26, but also Arians appreciates what the lengthy injury history says about him.

"I think that says everything about the kid, how tough he is to overcome all that," Arians said. "Then to play like he did this year. Now, the medical experts, when you get to the combine, they'll tug and pull and do all that stuff. You'll get the medical grade."

Arians still believes Mayfield could re-sign and was impressed with his 2023 performance.

"I think he loves it here," Arians said. "The job he did, I mean, the job Todd (Bowles) did with the new coordinator (Dave Canales), new play-caller, new quarterback and the ups and downs. To be the only NFC team to go to the playoffs four years in a row? That's very satisfying, for me especially."

But even if Mayfield returns, there might be room for another QB on the Bucs' roster. Kyle Trask, who lost a starting battle against Mayfield, is the only quarterback currently under contract, having completed 3 of 10 passes for 23 yards in three games of action over three seasons. He was the Bucs' second-round pick (64th overall) in the 2021 NFL Draft.

There's also a geographical connection to Tampa with Penix, who was raised in nearby Dade City, Fla. and attended Tampa Bay Technical High School, where he started for two seasons before going to play for the Hoosiers and later the Huskies. 

The Bucs are scheduled to pick 26th overall in Round 1 in April, although Penix might fall out of Round 1 if the medical concerns are too great. It's also a strong draft class overall at the QB position, Arians has noticed.

"This might be the best group of quarterbacks that have come out in 10 or 15 years," he said. "They've got guys running (the 40-yard dash in) 4.5 (seconds) and some guys slinging it. The passers are just amazing in this draft."

But Arians might have tipped his hand as to who his early favorite is.

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