After laying out core moves the Broncos should make no matter what for the 2024 season, there’s a fork in the road. That fork is a critical one: whether or not the Broncos decide to keep Russell Wilson on the roster.
I’ll lay my cards out on the table and make my opinion clear: the Broncos should indeed keep Russell Wilson.
I base this opinion on one very broad observation: I hold that Wilson had an average season in 2023, and a baseline of average play can be reasonably expected. By traditional passing statistics, Wilson did quite well: 8th in passer rating, 9th in touchdown passes, and only 8 interceptions. He was above average in completion percentage, and slightly below average in total yardage. More advanced statistics show a more mixed picture: QBR has him ranked 21st, PFF with a grade of 77.5, and DVOA at -2.2% (slightly below average) but DYAR at 286 (clearly above replacement). This demonstrates to me that 2022 was an aberattion.
The Broncos, like all other teams, should of course strive for better than average play at quarterback. But it must be emphasized that teams can do much worse than average at the position. Denver itself should know this very well in the seasons following Peyton Manning. Risking a drop in quarterback play to below replacement–which has happened several times in that time span–also risks spiraling a season out of control. That risk would be very high without Wilson on the roster.
What is currently at dispute is a $37 million base salary in 2025 that is currently guaranteed for injury only, that will vest to also being guaranteed for skill and cap on March 18th. The details on what negotiations have already taken place have been very vague. The Broncos have been very coy about exactly what was negotiated, while Wilson described it as raising the possibility that he could be benched after the bye week if he did not renegotiate this guarantee.
If I made the call here, I would have not approached Wilson with a renegotiation at all. But if the Broncos did want to do so, there’s a very obvious way to make it work to be satisfactory to both sides in some extent: Wilson gets half of his 2025 salary paid now in a signing bonus, and in exchange, he defers the vesting date on the remaining half until the fifth day of the 2025 league year. This is beneficial to Wilson, who gets $18.5 million more in cash right now, fully guaranteed; and beneficial to the Broncos, who gain a path to decide on the remaining $18.5 million a season from now.
This move could also be paired with a restructure of Wilson’s $17 million base salary in 2024 to give him most of that money several months in advance and to defer cap dollars further. The signing bonus paid would be a total of $34.29 million–alongside a $22 million option bonus he is already scheduled to get. Here’s what Wilson’s contract would look like with this renegotiation:
This renegotiation reduces Wilson’s 2024 cap number by almost $9 million, and reduces his 2025 cap number by about $11.6 million. Should the Broncos want to part ways after 2024, a cut with a June 1 designation keeps Wilson’s contract as is until after then, when the remaining $18.5 million comes off the books, leaving $25.258 million in 2025, and $51.774 million in 2026. Each of those numbers are still under the cap hits Wilson would have scheduled for the rest of his contract.
Should the Broncos and Wilson come to an agreement similar to this, there are still plenty of roster moves that they can make–or not make–that I would see beneficial for the team, with the active moves as follows:
9. Wait on a change to Tim Patrick’s contract until after the draft
Situations like this are among the most difficult to deal with when it comes to NFL contracts. Patrick has cruelly and unfairly had two entire seasons stolen from him due to unlucky injuries. He has not been able to play a single snap on the extension that he signed back in November 2021. What remains on that extension is $10 million in unguaranteed salary. This, plus the facts that he will be turning 31 this upcoming season, and that Marvin Mims has emerged as a rising rookie alongside Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, contain multiple factors that heavily point to Patrick being confronted with a pay cut for 2024.
I can’t really dissent from that argument, but I would nonetheless like to see if there’s a path to avoid that fate, and if goals above this one are accomplished, I could foresee such a path to at least see where the team is after the draft before making a move. Should Patrick be approached with a pay cut, I would anticipate it being of the typical structure of fully guaranteeing the remaining salary, while shifting the balance of the pay cut into incentives. Since Patrick has not played at all in the past two seasons, almost any conceivable incentive would be classified as Not Likely To Be Earned and have its cap charges deferred to the following season.
It also needs to be observed that if Patrick still cannot pass a physical at any moment he’s cut, he would be eligible for an injury protection of $2.1 million under Article 45, Section 3(a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. That figure of $2.1 million should be used as a minimum to be guaranteed for any sort of pay cut that Patrick would agree to.
10. Retain Josey Jewell
I carved out a contract that I feel would be fair for Jewell that comes out to $10.5 million APY. When it comes to setting budgets for extending pending free agents, my brain will always gravitate toward compensatory pick cutoffs, and I do believe that $10.5 million APY on the level of snaps that Jewell plays would be very close to the 4th and 5th round. If Jewell is able to best that APY elsewhere, I would be happy for him to get that contract, and happy for the Broncos to potentially work toward a 4th round comp pick.
11. Retain PJ Locke
For Locke, the safety market around his level felt like about $6.5 million APY to me. That should also meet closely to the compensatory pick cutoff between the 5th and 6th round. Like Jewell, if Locke can get a contract better than that, great for him, and great for the Broncos to set up a 5th round comp pick.
12. Retain Fabian Moreau
In thinking about comp pick cutoffs for Moreau, I would simply put it on the minimum level to qualify as a compensatory free agent, and I’d guess that that number would be at $2.5 million APY. A one year deal with that amount as the maximum would be appropriate to offer to Moreau.
13. Retain Wil Lutz
I’ve laid out what I feel is a fair contract for Lutz, but this is a contract that I would have very low tolerance for moving further beyond this budget. I’m not wild about spending too much on kickers or punters beyond exceptional circumstances, and while Lutz performed well in 2023, I would still want the ability to give him a challenge from a rookie as appropriate beyond 2024.
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For those curious as to how the cap dollars would be allocated with all of the above moves, along with simple restructures for four players and an extension of Lloyd Cushenberry, under the parameters that I have set forward, here’s a rough example:
The Broncos are in compliance with the 2024 salary cap after all of these moves, and several top contracts have yet to be touched. That includes Patrick, that includes Garett Bolles and Justin Simmons, even when both contracts should be restructured, and preferably extended, and that includes Patrick Surtain II even as he deserves a market setting extension. This is the way that I would like to see the Broncos go forward with.