An upset loss to the Patriots on Christmas Eve set forth a chain reaction that led to the Broncos’ behind-the-scenes drama with Russell Wilson becoming public days later. Wilson appears headed toward free agency, but the Broncos are stopping short of confirming that.
Sean Payton and GM George Paton said Tuesday the two-year Denver starting quarterback could return in 2024, with the veteran head coach indicating (via the Denver Gazette’s Chris Tomasson) he spoke at length with Wilson after the season ended. Paton said (via Tomasson) the 12-year QB is open to coming back.
Wilson said as much two weeks ago, confirming the rumors the Broncos approached him about changing the guarantee vesting date in his contract. Paton confirmed the Broncos made a “good faith” effort to address the $49MM-AAV contract during the team’s bye week, contacting Wilson’s agent, Tomasson adds. This brought the NFLPA into the process, though no grievance is expected.
“I spent half an hour with Russ yesterday, and I told him, I said, ‘Look, I don’t think it’s going to be a long, drawn-out process, but it hasn’t been decided relative to what our plans are,’” Payton said, via NFL.com’s James Palmer. “But as soon as we know something, certainly he would be the first to know.”
Paton later said he works collaboratively with Payton, but the three-year GM indicted the late-December benching was independent of the guarantee that would kick in had Wilson suffered an injury that would have prevented him from passing a physical in March. Considering the circumstances, that is rather difficult to believe.
“During the bye week, I did reach out to Russ’ agent in a good-faith and creative attempt to adjust his contract,’’ Paton said. “We couldn’t get a deal done. We moved on with our season. It didn’t come up again.”
The Broncos retaining Wilson past the fifth day of the 2024 league year would lead to his $37MM 2025 base salary becoming guaranteed. Wilson’s 2024 money is already locked in, and a March release would still result in a record-smashing $84.6MM in dead money associated with a single player. The Broncos would assuredly spread that over two offseasons, via a post-June 1 designation. If they kept Wilson for 2024, he would be just as difficult to release in 2025. The 2025 salary guarantee vesting this March would lead to an $86MM dead-money hit in the event of a ’25 release.
Wilson, 35, has expected to be released for weeks. The Broncos, however, do not have access to the top quarterbacks in the draft. Barring a trade, that is. Considering Denver already traded two first-round picks for Wilson and sent the Saints first- and second-rounders for Payton’s rights, a trade-up maneuver for a passer would be particularly costly. The Broncos hold the No. 12 pick in the 2024 draft, complicating their path to land a rookie.
The free agency crop stands to feature Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield as the top names, but both arms have expressed interest in staying with their current teams. Ryan Tannehill, Gardner Minshew, Sam Darnold, Jacoby Brissett, Jake Browning and ex-Payton Saints charge Jameis Winston are among the notable QBs on track for free agency. Jarrett Stidham‘s $10MM contract runs through 2024, putting the two-time contract-driven replacement in play to be a Broncos bridge starter in 2024.
Paton being the point man on the Wilson trade and Nathaniel Hackett hire naturally invited rumors about his job status, seeing as Payton inherited the ex-Vikings exec as GM. But Payton again offered support for his coworker Tuesday. This follows a Sunday report that indicated Paton is more likely to stay for a fourth year. When asked (via Tomasson) who has the final say if a Payton-Paton disagreement ensues, the GM said that scenario has not yet come up. While John Elway‘s GM successor has offered hits (the 2021 draft), his misses (a list that also includes Randy Gregory) have outshined those through three years.
After the team gave up a blockbuster trade haul to land Wilson, another offseason looks set to be devoted to identifying a passer. Unless Wilson changes his mind and is suddenly amenable to a pay cut or a reworking that gives the Broncos more flexibility, Payton is likely to have his first chance in Denver to handpick a starting quarterback. It would be unlikely Paton stands in the HC’s way.