ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The biggest decision the Denver Broncos will face this offseason is about quarterback Russell Wilson’s future, and they seemed to hint at what’s coming by benching him Wednesday in favor of Jarrett Stidham with two games left in the regular season.
Wilson’s five-year, $242.6 million contract signed in 2022 carries plenty of potential salary cap pain if Wilson isn’t behind center in 2024, but coach Sean Payton has been open about his displeasure with the offense.
Wilson is among the NFL’s top 10 in touchdown passes and passer rating, but the Broncos are among the league’s worst in third-down production and goal-to-situations as well as 22nd in the red zone. The Broncos will also likely finish without a 1,000-yard receiver for the fourth consecutive season and will probably miss the playoffs for the eighth.
Wilson has one 300-yard passing game this season – the team’s 70-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins – but has been more efficient and thrown fewer interceptions (8) than last season, when he finished with a career-low 16 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a career-most 55 sacks.
But given the news out of the Broncos’ facility, is he on his way out of Denver? We answer the biggest questions:
Why bench Wilson with two games left in the season?
Payton has been fuming about the offense for much of the second half of the season, including a sideline blowup at Wilson during the team’s loss to Detroit. On Tuesday, Payton said the Broncos were “average to below average in a lot of things offensively” despite Wilson being tied for sixth in the NFL in touchdown passes (26).
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Then there’s the money. Wilson is guaranteed $39 million in 2024 whether he is with the team or not, but he also has an additional $37 million that would become guaranteed if he cannot pass a physical in early March. An injury in the last two games of the season could potentially trigger that guarantee. The Broncos are making it clear they do not want to have to pay it. – Jeff Legwold
Has Wilson started his last game in Denver?
This is the first step toward that conclusion. But there are big decisions and significant roster-building issues ahead if that’s the case.
Wilson’s deal carries massive dead money charges over the next two years if the Broncos cut him. There’s no fixing that, really, so that is salary cap space that can’t be spent on players, including potential replacements at quarterback.
The looming free agent quarterback crop looks thin if they are trying to improve over Wilson, and the Broncos have just six picks in the April draft, with no second-rounder.
They might not like the idea of Wilson behind center, but it’s going to be painful for them to find an alternative. – Legwold
What type of financial hit would the Broncos take if they parted ways with Wilson?
The Broncos could designate Wilson as a post-June 1 release after the season and owe $85 million in dead money, spread over two seasons. They would be on the hook for $35.4 million in 2024 and $49.6 million in 2025. Denver would also owe Wilson $39 million in cash for 2024. If the Broncos released Wilson, Payton likely would need to find a low-cost solution at quarterback and try to win with a different sort of roster-building philosophy.
Trading Wilson before June 1 would leave the Broncos with a staggering $68 million in dead money next year, unless Denver could convince the acquiring team to pay his $22 million option bonus. The acquiring team would owe Wilson $54 million over the next two years if it didn’t pick up the bonus (and $76 million if it did). Wilson’s deal likely has negative trade value, but the quarterback market is irrational. – Bill Barnwell
Denver is projected to pick No. 13 in the 2024 draft. Could it target a QB there?
The Broncos should be considered in on the quarterbacks in April’s draft, but they might miss out on the four projected to be selected in Round 1. USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye and LSU’s Jayden Daniels will almost certainly be off the board by the time Denver picks, leaving Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy as the lone realistic possibility (though McCarthy could still remain in college for another year).
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If McCarthy makes it out of the top 10 – where at least six teams could be making a quarterback change – the Broncos should jump at the chance to add his skill set to their roster. McCarthy is strong-armed, very mobile and highly efficient as a passer both inside and outside the pocket. His second-effort ability, field vision and movement skills would fit perfectly in Payton’s scheme. – Matt Miller
If the Broncos cut Wilson, how will he fit into the 2024 QB market?
Despite the benching, Wilson should have value on the free agent market, especially if Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins or Tampa Bay’s Baker Mayfield re-sign with their current teams.
Wilson has his struggles operating from the pocket, but he has four game-winning drives this season. He still throws well on the move and has good touch on the deep ball.
The Falcons and Patriots will most likely be in the market for a veteran passer, as well as the Giants if Daniel Jones needs more time to recover from his knee injury.
Wilson once had the Raiders on his personal short list as he was looking to leave Seattle. If Las Vegas goes the veteran route, Wilson would have the chance to attack Payton’s defense twice a year.
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Look, Wilson’s big-money days are probably over. He has worn out his welcome in two stops. But have you seen the quarterback climate the past two years and who’s playing meaningful snaps on Sundays? There’s a place for him. – Jeremy Fowler
Does Stidham have a shot at being the starter next year?
If Wilson’s gone, it’s a wide-open affair. There are those in the league who believe Payton convinced Stidham to come to Denver when Stidham had other options in free agency, with the idea Stidham could have a chance to at least compete for the starting job at some point.
Neither Payton nor Stidham have said anything resembling that publicly, but beyond the makeover in the offensive line in free agency, the Broncos were most aggressive about pursuing Stidham last March. What he does Sunday and likely in next week’s finale against the Las Vegas Raiders could give him early momentum to show he has that potential. – Legwold