Broncos To Bench Russell Wilson

With a Week 16 loss to the Patriots effectively closing the door on the Broncos’ playoff hopes, the Russell Wilson watch has begun in Denver. As Sean Payton was not with the team when it acquired the longtime Seahawks star last year, the 2024 offseason has been viewed as a key point on the Broncos’ timeline.

It could also soon be a key chapter in NFL transaction history. Sitting at 7-8, the Broncos will bench Wilson. Payton informed the team Jarrett Stidham will start in Week 17,’s Adam Schefter reports. After the Broncos followed up a five-game win streak with a 1-3 stretch,’s Ian Rapoport reported the team was considering this move — one aimed at ensuring Wilson stays healthy before a pivotal offseason physical.

While Wilson has played much better this season, he has not justified the Broncos’ trade cost. The team sent an eight-asset package to Seattle, which included two first-round picks and two second-rounders. That decision came just after Aaron Rodgers — a multiyear Broncos target — agreed to a Packers extension. More importantly, the extension the Broncos gave Wilson just before last season creates a complex situation for the improved team.

The Broncos signed Wilson to a five-year, $245MM extension last summer; that deal came with $124MM fully guaranteed. The team had Wilson on a Seahawks-constructed contract ($35MM per year) through 2024, but it wanted to beat this year’s extension surge, leading to the $49MM-AAV re-up. Wilson waiving his no-trade clause for Denver always pointed to a new deal in 2022, but that turned out to be the wrong play. Even considering this year’s improvement, Wilson has not moved the needle for a Broncos team that has not found an upper-crust replacement for Peyton Manning since his 2016 retirement. Stidham will be the Broncos’ 14th starting QB post-Manning.

The Broncos can protect themselves against a $37MM guarantee (Wilson’s 2025 base salary) vesting in 2024, but the team cutting Wilson would create a staggering dead-money total. Even if the Broncos release Wilson with a post-June 1 designation — which would assuredly be the move if they are indeed cutting the cord — they would take on $35MM in dead money next year, according to OverTheCap. That would approach a record in itself, but this move would also bring a $49.6MM dead-money blow for 2025. Considering Matt Ryan‘s $40.5MM dead-money total from 2022 remains the single-player record, the Broncos would be sailing into uncharted waters — a two-offseason dead-cap total of $84.6MM associated with Wilson’s contract — if they cut their top quarterback next year.

On Day 5 of the 2024 league year, that $37MM guarantee vests if Wilson remains on the Broncos’ roster. That number is guaranteed for injury only until that March date, when it shifts to a full guarantee. But $68MM in bonus prorations from 2024-28 are also part of this equation, which stands to lead to the dead-money bloodbath.

Wilson’s contract containing a year-out guarantee, which is common among today’s high-profile deals, will force the Broncos’ hand early. If Wilson’s 2025 base salary locks in come March, the Broncos would still be tagged with $86.6MM in dead money (the $37MM base plus the $49.6MM in prorated bonuses from 2025-28) if they cut the decorated QB in 2025 rather than 2024. If Payton has deemed this a substandard fit, it behooves the Broncos to absorb this unprecedented financial blow early. Offset language does exist in Wilson’s deal, which would provide some relief once the 12th-year veteran lands elsewhere, OverTheCap’s Jason Fitzgerald adds.

This scenario is eerily similar to the one the Raiders encountered with Derek Carr. Once again, Stidham is the player who would move into the starting lineup in the event of a protection-based benching. Deciding early to bail on the Carr extension that included a February 2023 guarantee vesting date, the Raiders parked Carr on the bench — though, he left the team to avoid becoming a distraction — ahead of Week 17 last season.

Stidham started the Raiders’ final two games last season, creating a QB2 market. The Broncos gave the ex-Patriots draftee a two-year, $10MM deal to back up Wilson, beating out a Raiders offer. Unlike Carr, Wilson will not leave his team. He will dress as Denver’s QB2 against the Chargers,’s Tom Pelissero tweets.

Wilson ranks seventh in passer rating, throwing 26 touchdown passes — after he tossed just 16 last season — compared to just eight interceptions. But the Broncos have not exactly deployed an explosive offense. It ranks 16th in points scored, though that is up from 32nd last year, and 16th in DVOA. Wilson’s relative bounce-back effort notwithstanding, the team remains limited through the air. Payton has restrained Wilson to a degree, and the Broncos have largely relied on short passes or deep shots to Courtland Sutton during their rebound from a 1-5 start. The 35-year-old passer ranks 21st in QBR, and new regimes are more willing to take on dead money associated with players brought in under previous staffs.

Technically, this is not a new regime. GM George Paton remains, but it is widely assumed Payton is calling the shots in Denver. Paton, who was in place for the Wilson extension and Nathaniel Hackett‘s one-and-done, has been linked to being on thin ice. A move to bench Wilson to protect against an injury affecting his contract status may well precede Paton exiting in 2024. The coach Paton traded for this offseason has not meshed especially well with Wilson, whose skillset differs from Drew Brees‘.

For Wilson, this obviously represents new territory. Although the two-time Super Bowl starter submitted a shockingly mediocre season under Hackett, the Broncos did not bench him last season. The nine-time Pro Bowler moving closer to his Seahawks form under Payton may keep the Hall of Fame in play — though, this Denver tenure does inject an interesting chapter — but this benching points to him being available in 2024. Considering this is not a tradeable contract, Wilson is moving toward becoming a free agent for the first time.

This imminent separation will put the Broncos in the market for a new quarterback soon. The team’s recovery from its 1-5 start will make that more difficult, as its draft slot has dropped to 14th. Should the Broncos follow through on their now-expected Wilson release in 2024, it will be interesting to see if a team would be willing to provide another starting opportunity for the ex-Seattle iron man. Wilson is the only player in NFL history with over 40,000 passing yards and 5,000 rushing yards. After being hesitant to run much under Hackett, Wilson has regularly helped the 2023 Broncos by scrambling (341 rushing yards).

While it is clear Wilson is past his prime, he has played a key role in the Broncos’ surprising playoff push — one that Stidham now controls. ESPN’s FPI gives the Broncos just a 5.6% chance to qualify. Against those long odds, the team will soon began a look toward the future.

View Comments (61)