How Russell Wilson’s contract extension could force Broncos to consider benching him later this season

Russell Wilson sees good in the future.

“I feel great, the ball’s spinning well, I feel like I’m seeing it well for the most part and then also moving well,” Wilson told reporters Wednesday. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world.”

Wilson started the season with nine touchdown passes in his first four games, but has turned the ball over three times and been sacked eight over the Broncos’ past two losses, including a 95-yard night his last time out at Kansas City.

Denver coach Sean Payton said when it comes to life in the NFL, “there’s a fine line between a rut and a groove.” Over a 1-5 start, that’s applied to Wilson, Denver’s offense and the club overall.

But regardless of whether the Broncos find a groove or remain stuck in a rut as they move toward midseason and past a Week 9 bye, they’re approaching an inflection point with their quarterback that centers around a question with repercussions not just for 2023 but multiple years beyond.

Can they afford to keep Wilson on the field?

How they answer that will speak volumes about the quarterback’s future with the franchise.

The driving force behind it isn’t so much about Wilson’s current-year production, which has ticked up from 2022. It’s about two factors that matter just as much in the NFL: Money and risk.

If the Broncos are happy paying Wilson well into the future to be their quarterback, there’s no risk in letting him play the rest of the season. If they have any doubt about his status as Denver’s guy beyond this season, though, a conversation about whether he should be benched at some point later on will begin in Denver’s front office soon. If it hasn’t already.

Here’s why.

Wilson’s 2024 salary is already guaranteed, but on March 17, the fifth day of the 2024 league year, his $37 million in 2025 salary becomes fully guaranteed, too.

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The next wrinkle: Injured players can’t be cut. So if Wilson were to sustain an injury over the second half of the 2023 season that requires a major rehabilitation and prevents him from passing a physical in March, that money becomes guaranteed.

That makes the decision at hand over the coming weeks not about who gives Denver the best chance to win this year or even whether they’re interested in having Wilson on the roster in 2024, but if they’re willing to risk getting locked into paying Wilson through 2025.

“One hundred percent. That’s the date that forces a decision to happen,” Pro Football Focus and Over the Cap analyst Brad Spielberger told The Post. “… Long answer short, that date is a trigger date.”

The further the Broncos proceed into this season and the further from contention they fall, the more focus will shift toward the future. It’s one thing to take a $37 million risk if you’re playing for a division title or even trying to stay in the Wild Card picture. It’s another if you’re out of contention and sell off more assets before the Oct. 31 trade deadline.

“It’s going to be tough. The earlier you do it, the tougher it is,” Spielberger said of deciding whether to bench Wilson. “The season is effectively over, but of course you want to sell tickets, want fans to think you can make a run. But it’s a massive risk.”

A year ago, Las Vegas reached a point late in the season when it decided the risk of playing Derek Carr became intolerable. The team benched him for the final two weeks to avoid any chance he got hurt, which would have triggered $40.4 million in injury guaranteed money for 2023 and ’24.

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Coincidentally, it was Jarrett Stidham, now Wilson’s backup, who started those two games for the Raiders.

Denver could be forced into the same situation by a similar set of risks. Wilson has been remarkably durable over the course of his career and so far this season, but he also was on the injury report three times in 2022, turns 35 next month and is on pace to get sacked 54 times this season.

If the Broncos knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Wilson is not coming back in 2024, they may already have benched him given the team’s postseason odds currently sit at less than 1%. If they’re committed to him for the next couple of seasons, they don’t need to do anything. And if they’re somewhere in between, that’s where the balance gets tricky.

Parting with Wilson in March comes with $85 million in dead cap charges, which can be divided over the 2024 and ’25 salary caps. The way Wilson’s deal is currently constructed, though, cutting him a year later actually costs more on the cap. If the $37 million for 2025 becomes guaranteed, his dead cap number after the 2024 season goes up to $86.6 million.

That means unless Wilson agrees to a major restructure of his contract, Denver either has to cut him in March or essentially commit to him until 2026. And without much in between, the impact a potential injury would have on the 2025 guarantee is only going to loom larger the longer the season goes.

In the meantime, the two sides each still have decisions to make.

The menu for the Broncos and Wilson spans the gamut from nuclear options (cutting Wilson midseason or paying another team to trade for him), to a full contract restructure or more modest adjustment. The lower end of that spectrum could include moving the trigger date for the 2025 salary guarantee back a year or even until later in the spring.

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“That’s more common,” Spielberger said. “Different situation, but in (Kansas City quarterback) Patrick Mahomes’ re-worked deal they moved back some of the dates of when roster bonuses get paid out and when they become guaranteed. It’s obviously a different situation but you’re still just trying to buy more flexibility and give yourself more time on things.”

Any adjustment, regardless of scope, requires both sides coming to the table and neither is going to come out looking particularly good.

For Denver, making a move that sets the wheels in motion toward separation is the first step in admitting a massive mistake. The five-year extension worth up to $245 million general manager George Paton and the new ownership group gave Wilson last year doesn’t even start until 2024.

For Wilson, the choice could be between getting benched at some point this year, taking a modified deal toward the middle of the quarterback market or playing knowing that he’s potentially auditioning for other teams as much as he is trying to help the Broncos get wins down the stretch.

There are dozens of variables, several voices and all kinds of unknowns at play, but really only three realities exist for the second half of the season if Denver has any doubt whatsoever about Wilson’s future here: His contract gets adjusted, he doesn’t play or the Broncos roll the dice on a $37 million risk.

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