Unsurprisingly, the Broncos’ decision to bench Russell Wilson has generated some fallout. The process that led to this call transpired during much of the team’s five-game win streak earlier this season
Wilson has been expecting to be released since shortly after the team’s win over the Chiefs on Oct. 29, according to The Athletic’s Dianna Russini (subscription required). Despite Wilson playing much better in 2023 than he did during a shockingly mediocre 2022, his contract has hovered as a big-picture issue for the Broncos.
Sean Payton acknowledged the economic component involved with this benching — one that comes exactly a year after the Raiders shelved Derek Carr to play Jarrett Stidham for contract reasons — but said the team wants to gather some intel on its backup before season’s end. With the Broncos’ last-second loss to the Patriots all but slamming the door shut on their playoff hopes, the initiation of Wilson divorce proceedings makes sense. The inevitable release will bring a seismic dead-money hit, one that will more than double the record the Falcons set last year ($40.5MM) when they traded Matt Ryan to the Colts.
It will cost the Broncos $84.6MM in dead money to cut Wilson in 2024. They will assuredly spread that number over two offseasons with a post-June 1 designation, but this will still represent a significant chapter in NFL transaction history — one that will hamstring the Broncos for two more years. It is unclear where Wilson will end up and how the Broncos — thanks to the Payton-Wilson experiment producing a midseason surge that revived the team’s playoff hopes — will go about replacing him. At 7-8, Denver’s draft slot sits 14th presently. But this drama has played out behind the scenes for weeks.
Shortly after the Broncos’ 24-9 win over the Chiefs, GM George Paton initiated the conversation to Wilson’s agent centered around the QB delaying his 2025 guarantee. The third-year Broncos GM said Wilson would be benched for the season’s final nine games if he did not delay the $37MM guarantee for 2025, Russini reports. That number, which shifts from an injury guarantee to a full guarantee on Day 5 of the 2024 league year, is behind the Broncos’ decision to bench Wilson now. This did not amount to a full-on ultimatum, according to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, who notes team brass went through Wilson’s agent rather than bringing the QB into a meeting and demanding he adjust his deal or lose his starting job.
The Broncos’ ultimatum, reiterated days after Paton’s initial request, prompted Wilson’s agent to contact the NFLPA, CBS Sports’ Josina Anderson reports. Paton is said to have noted Wilson’s benching would be financially motivated, rather than for skill or performance. Reviewing the matter, the NFLPA wrote a letter to the Broncos and indicated it had consulted with the NFL management council, per Anderson, who offers that the team then sent Wilson’s camp a letter conveying the QB’s refusal to change his contract’s guarantee structure would be respected. The letter, however, also indicated Payton would now dictate if Wilson would be benched. The Broncos never previously informed the 35-year-old passer when he would be shelved, however, according to Russini.
Ultimately, the Broncos’ talks with Wilson’s camp about delaying the 2025 guarantee were not amicable and were not in accordance with the CBA, per Anderson. Though, the team does not share the viewpoint the talks were not CBA-compliant. But this relationship — one that veered from disastrous to adequate on the field from 2022-23 — looks to have been deteriorating over the past two months. Wilson has likely thrown his last pass as a Bronco, with Stidham — given a two-year, $10MM deal in March — in place to start the final two games.
The contract component will lead to this trade being viewed as one of the worst in NFL history. Wilson’s 26-TD, eight-INT bounce-back effort notwithstanding, NFL.com’s James Palmer notes people in Denver’s building viewed this benching as a football-related call — with the obvious financial undercurrent — for the 2023 season’s remainder.
Payton has said the offense needs to improve, and Palmer adds the new Broncos HC believes too many elements are present in the team’s current attack. Prior to the Wilson-guided rally against the Patriots, the Broncos’ offense struggled during an ugly effort. Payton has since said he does not view the up-tempo attack Wilson thrived in as sustainable over the course of a game. Pro Football Focus rates the Broncos’ offensive line as seventh overall, but Palmer adds only Justin Fields has been pressured more than Wilson. Broncos staffers also believe the pocket has been cleaner than the sack-prone QB’s pattern would depict. Wilson ranks seventh in passer rating but 21st in QBR.
While this adds up to Payton believing the fit between his concepts and Wilson’s strengths — a long-rumored issue after the Broncos acquired the ex-Saints HC — is too clunky, the team (and potentially its GM) will pay the price in the form of the historic dead-money sum.
Paton said upon firing Nathaniel Hackett he believed Wilson was salvageable, and Payton said just before this season the potential Hall of Famer’s skills had not eroded despite his 2022 regression. Wilson partially proved both right, but the Broncos’ offensive performance was not justifying the trade cost or the $49MM-per-year extension. Following the report Wilson wanted Payton to replace Pete Carroll in Seattle, Payton being the one to bench the accomplished QB is rather ironic.
Stidham’s contract contains just $1MM guaranteed for 2024, but after his Raiders run brought one stunningly productive start (a 365-yard, three-TD outing against the 49ers) and one shaky showing (against the Chiefs), the Broncos will see what their backup can bring. Wilson has since tweeted, “Looking forward to what’s next.”
“As a head coach, you’ve got to make some tough decisions and they won’t always be right,” Payton said. “They just won’t. You go with your gut and your instincts. We need a spark. We need something right now. We’ll handle the long term when we get there.”