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Whither Russell Wilson?

Yesterday, the Broncos decided to play Jarrett Stidham for their final two games of the regular season. It was easy to see from as soon as the news started to break that Russell Wilson’s $37 million injury guarantee for his 2025 salary would be at the heart of this decision, and that indeed came from more details via Jordan Schultz, confirmed by Troy Renck and Dianna Russini. Where does that leave the Broncos and Wilson both now, and toward the upcoming season?

The timing to make this move at this moment is very explicable. While the Broncos are not completely eliminated from playoff contention, their unexpected loss to the Patriots last weekend made the path much more difficult, even with the Chiefs leaving the door to the AFC West title ajar with their own unexpected loss.

But the details in Schultz’s report make the background going on before this move harder to explain:

The #Broncos threatened to bench Russell Wilson weeks ago if he didn’t remove his injury guarantees.

Russell Wilson’s benching by the Broncos today is solely financially related and has been in the works for weeks, per multiple sources with direct access to the situation.

The Broncos approached Wilson two days after their October 29 upset win over the Kansas City Chiefs and told him he would be made inactive for the rest of the season if he did not adjust his contract and defer the injury guarantee trigger date that he has for 2025. Wilson has $37 million in injury guarantees for 2025 that will become guaranteed no matter what on the fifth day of the 2024 league year in March.

At that time, Wilson was coming off a 3-touchdown game in the win over the Chiefs and was starting to experience the type of success he envisioned following a challenging first year in Denver. The threat however, “shocked him,” and the two sides got into a major dispute on how to proceed.

The issue remained, but the Broncos stuck with Wilson as the team strung together primetime wins over the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings, followed by another win over the Cleveland Browns, one of the league’s best defenses.

Wilson, 35, has started all 15 games this season and has completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 3,070 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

When the threat was made by the Broncos, the team, Wilson’s camp, the NFLPA, and another unknown party were involved in negotiations that ended with no change in Wilson’s contract.

And it all came crashing down today when Sean Payton and other top-level members of Denver’s organization decided to go ahead with the plan they’ve had for weeks.

There are several aspects of this that do not make good sense from the Broncos’ standpoint. First, why broach Wilson with this request after the team had gone on a two game winning streak? There would have been more sense had this request had come when they were 1-5 and prospects of a foregone season were looming larger. It is true that two weeks later would have coincided with the trade deadline, and if the Broncos wanted to make more moves at that point, it would time better with such a corresponding move on Wilson. But the Broncos ended up making no moves at the trade deadline, which add to an already mysterious action by itself.

But what’s really damning on the Broncos’ side is that they didn’t follow through with the threat to bench Wilson after this request. Once a team has made this demand aware to the player, this is something that should be followed through with, lest the threat becomes empty. If the Broncos had high concern about being on the hook for an additional $37 million if Wilson sustained a long term injury, then they gambled against that concern by playing him for seven more games after that–in addition to emptying out the threat. Why? Without more details, this strikes me as a very poorly executed plan on the Broncos’ part.

But while I would place the lion’s share of the blame on the team at this point from what’s known, Wilson’s response also falls into question. Why go all the way to getting the NFLPA involved when there could have been middle ground to be had? There were many paths that this could have taken, but my preferred compromise that had been on my mind before would be to split the difference by paying about half of the $37 million to Wilson now in exchange for deferring the full guarantees on the rest later. If that’s unacceptable to Wilson, then that’s wholly fair for him to decline, but a simple “thanks but no thanks” would have sufficed–and as it turned out he ended up calling the Broncos’ bluff for seven out of nine regular season games left.

Everyone should preach some caution

While it’s fair to say that this more likely than not ends Wilson’s career in Denver, both the Broncos and Wilson should thoroughly think through about where the future could go before signing off on a divorce.

From the Broncos’ standpoint it’s straightforward on multiple fronts. Their likeliest path toward moving on would first be to decline to prorate a $22 million guaranteed option bonus due to Wilson. This ups his 2024 base salary from $17 million to $39 million, and his cap number to $53 million. They would then execute a cut with a June 1 designation, which keeps his contract as such until after that date, where that cap number would stay the same as dead money.

Such a move would put the Broncos about $41 million over the projected 2024 salary cap. Somewhere about $27 million to $30 million of that can be had by restructuring the guaranteed salaries of Zach Allen, Mike McGlinchey, and Ben Powers–moves that were always highly likely to happen anyway. But further moves would need to be made beyond that. Cutting Tim Patrick due to the arrival of Marvin Mims could be one path, but if he still can’t pass a physical then there may be $2.1 million in injury protection under Article 45 of the CBA that could come into play that would damper the goals of such a move. Pairing that with cutting DJ Jones would get them into compliance, but now there are arguably two holes on the interior defensive line, as no one else has decisively emerged alongside Allen–along with the restriction of any other ability to improve the roster. Extending Garett Bolles and/or Justin Simmons, as I laid out yesterday, would provide more flexibility, but both of those players would be aware of leverage they would have in order to help the Broncos out.

But what is far more worrying than any short term cap acrobatics is what the Broncos’ plan at quarterback would be without Wilson. There’s been plenty of argument over just how well Wilson has played in 2023. By passer rating and touchdowns he’s top ten in the league–pretty good! By QBR he comes in at 21st with 50.6–not so good! He’s currently positive in DYAR at 296, but barely negative in DVOA at -1.8%. PFF has him in the green with a grade of 77.5.

The fairest interpretation of Wilson’s 2023 play would be right around average. Yes, he would be overpaid for average play as it stands, but overpaying for veterans is part of the NFL game. The Broncos can do–and recently have done–much worse than average at quarterback. Free agency options, as usual, are limited and likely bleak. And the draft is a crapshoot: hits and busts happen all the time, with no one able to reliably crack the code as to which ones will succeed at the NFL level.

And from Wilson’s standpoint, he has to ask himself whether a $39 million parting gift from Denver is really satisfactory, or $38 million APY over two seasons if that’s what he really wants to secure. Would another team be willing to pay him that kind of money after two rollercoaster seasons in Denver? If not, then he risks giving up what he has now for less of what he could have later.

All of this is to say that in coming months that no one, both within and outside of the parties involved, should jump to immediate conclusions as to where the future should go, and question whether a parting of the ways is indeed beneficial.