On the verge of becoming a first-time free agent, Russell Wilson resides in limbo to close out his second season with the Broncos. Demoted after the Broncos fell out of reasonable playoff contention, Wilson has expected to be released for several weeks.
First, however, the 12th-year veteran will be Denver’s QB2 behind Jarrett Stidham against the Chargers. Unlike Derek Carr, who left the Raiders following his benching for Stidham last season, Wilson will dress for the Broncos’ Week 17 game. Beyond that, his situation is murky.
Wilson shed light on the Broncos’ reported attempt to change his guarantee vesting date. GM George Paton is believed to have contacted Wilson’s agent about adjusting the contract to move back the 2024 vesting date, according to the Denver Gazette’s Chris Tomasson. Wilson also confirmed (via Denver7’s Troy Renck) this occurred during Denver’s Week 10 bye, just after the team had beaten the Chiefs. The 35-year-old QB also said the team notified him he would be benched earlier had he not agreed to do so. After the NFLPA contacted the Broncos about this request, with Wilson adding the NFL indeed was also involved, the team did not follow through with benching its starter at that juncture. His five-year, $245MM contract remains untouched — for now.
“They came up to me during the bye week, beginning of the bye week — Monday or Tuesday — and told me if I didn’t change my contract, my injury guarantee, I’d be benched for the rest of the year,” Wilson said. “I was definitely disappointed about it. It was a process through the whole bye week. We had just came off beating the Chiefs. I was excited obviously for us fighting for the playoffs. The NFLPA and NFL got involved at some point, I think.
“… I wasn’t going to take away injury guarantees. This game is such a physical game. I’ve played for 12 years and that matters to me.”
The former Seahawks superstar suffered multiple injuries, including a concussion last season; he missed two games. Were he unable to pass a physical by the start of the 2024 league year, the Broncos would be locked into paying that guarantee. Sitting him to close out this season doubles as a bubble-wrap scenario Las Vegas utilized with Carr and Washington executed by sitting Robert Griffin III — to protect against his fifth-year option salary from locking in, back when the options were guaranteed for injury only — in 2015.
A 2024 release will hit the Broncos with a record-shattering dead-money figure, $84.6MM over two years in a post-June 1 cut scenario. (For perspective, the Falcons’ $40.5MM Matt Ryan dead-money hit is the current single-player record.) But Denver’s two-year starter said Friday (via Tomasson) he wants to stay with the Broncos beyond this season. That would almost definitely require a contract adjustment, and the nine-time Pro Bowler did not confirm he was open to that.
Indicating disappointment with the Broncos’ midseason request and calling it a “low blow,” Wilson still appears headed toward free agency. When asked about the October attempt to adjust Wilson’s contract, Payton said (via Tomasson) he was not privy to the matter pertaining to the injury guarantee. The timing of the request occurred between the Broncos’ wins over the Chiefs and Bills. While they won four more games after the request, the team’s losses to the Lions and Patriots have all but buried its playoff hopes.
The guarantee in question — a $37MM sum — covers Wilson’s 2025 base salary; it shifts from an injury guarantee to a full guarantee on Day 5 of the 2024 league year. The Broncos attempted this ultimatum measure to explore a post-2023 future with Wilson, Renck notes. The Broncos aimed to move the vesting date from March 2024 to March 2025 to provide them more flexibility, per Tomasson.
Faring better this season than he did in 2022, Wilson has still not justified the trade cost or the $49MM-per-year extension. The former Super Bowl champion would have had a better chance to stay in Denver for the 2024 season had he accepted the team’s terms, but it is not surprising he would decline this request. It would have represented a risk had he gotten injured during the season’s second half. Were that $37MM guarantee not in the equation, the Broncos could have cut Wilson in 2025 for $49MM rather than the $84.6MM total they will soon face.
Wilson is not expected to receive that extra $37MM, but his contract will have paid out the $124MM fully guaranteed; that represents a monster sum for two years of work. Barring an 11th-hour reconciliation, the parties will separate at some point between Super Bowl LVIII and that March vesting date. Wilson will presumably look for another chance at a starting job elsewhere, while his contract will hamstring the Broncos as they seek to replace him.
“I hope that it’s here. I hope that it’s here for a long time,” Wilson said of his playing future. “… But if it’s not here, I’ll be prepared to do that somewhere else.”
Ian Rapoport of NFL.com does say that the Broncos will only part ways with Wilson if a better option becomes available to them. After all, as we discussed when the news of Wilson’s benching was first reported, Wilson will account for roughly the same charge on Denver’s cap over the next two seasons regardless of whether the club cuts him or retains him through Day 5 of the 2024 league year (although the actual cash outlay would be $37MM less if Wilson is released prior to the vesting date). Rapoport floats the possibility of a trade, noting that Wilson’s no-trade clause would allow player and team to work together to engineer some sort of mutually-beneficial exit.
Likewise, Adam Schefter of ESPN.com acknowledges that keeping Wilson or trading him are options that remain on the table, but both pundits ultimately believe that a release is far and away the more realistic outcome. Assuming Wilson is indeed cut, the Broncos are likely to designate him as a post-June 1 release to at least spread his staggering dead money hit over two seasons, as Schefter confirms.
Rapoport notes, as we also detailed previously, that Payton is unhappy with the way his offense looks with Wilson at the helm. Payton, who was privately unsure how Wilson would perform in the system that Drew Brees thrived in for so many years, has had to pare down and simplify his scheme, and even that did not allow the offense to operate at the speed that would allow it to maximize its potential. Furthermore, players have seen on film how Wilson, despite some big fourth-quarter performances, has failed to find open receivers on a consistent basis, and some players wondered even before Wilson’s benching if Stidham would be the better option. Starting today, we will start to see if there is some merit to those musings.
Rory Parks contributed to this post.